If We Make It Through December
VNapier & Sammi Q

FEEDBACK: Always. E-mail us at KIANA1@NETACS.NET or SAMMI4049442@YAHOO.COM
DISCLAIMERS: Standard disclaimers. Lancer and the characters are not ours, but the story is.
SUMMARY: December 1870 turns out to be full of unexpected events.

Thursday, December 1, 1870:

Cross Creek Railroad Station -

Overhead, the sky was gray with fluffy clouds that threatened neither rain nor snow, seeming content to simply block out the sun's warming rays and make life just a little too dreary. Johnny opened the door to the train depot and stood to the side, holding it open for Teresa to enter. Scott and Murdoch followed behind her, and Johnny slipped in behind them as the tiny procession made its way through the depot and out onto the loading platform.

Murdoch was carrying his large carpetbag in one hand, while his other hand was laid protectively on Teresa's shoulder. Scott was loaded down with both his and Teresa's bags, again refusing Johnny's offer of help as he had when it had come to loading the baggage before leaving the ranch.

"I only sneezed," Johnny grumbled.

"Which means you're still sick," Scott countered quickly. "Besides that, if you're too sick to accompany us to Denver, then you're too sick to be lugging our baggage around." His furrowed brow accentuated his next point. "You shouldn't even be here. We could have driven ourselves, and one of the hands could have picked up the surrey tomorrow."

Rolling his eyes, Johnny refused to be baited. Well, not too much, anyway. "I'll miss you, too, Brother."

"Oh, Johnny, I do wish you were coming with us. It's not going to be the same without you. This would have been our first real family trip."

Teresa's disappointment was enough to make Johnny turn away before he could be caught by those sad brown eyes. He hated her eyes. Well, he hated how they could make him feel, anyway. Not one had he been able to deny her anything once she turned on what he called her 'doe stare'. This trip was his first successful attempt at countering that look, but even then he had managed only with official help. "Sam's the one who said it wouldn't be a good idea," he argued.

Scott's arm snaked around Johnny's shoulder and gave a playful squeeze. "And we all know how well you follow Sam's orders, Brother Johnny."

"Scott, Teresa, let your brother be," Murdoch interceded, but his eyes sparkled with his held back amusement. "Sam did say traveling in the mountain air would not be wise, what with Johnny trying to fight off that persistent cold. I'm sure neither one of you would want to make him suffer needlessly."

Ever quick on the uptake, Johnny elbowed Scott away and then plied Teresa with a pouty look of his own. He had discovered early on that she had a weakness for a certain look of his, not to mention the fact that he stood a better chance of winning her sympathy than he did his brother's. "Yeah, you don't want to see me sufferin', do you, Teresa?"

It was Scott's turn to roll his eyes, but any verbal response he might have uttered was cut off by the conductor's loud cry, "All aboard!" A small group of passengers emerged onto the platform and began making their way onto the train.

"Johnny, we'll be back on the early train a week from next Monday."

"I know, Murdoch," Johnny sighed as he headed off the next lecture. "I heard you the first few hundred times. I'll do just fine. The ranch'll do fine. The cows'll do fine. Heck the grass'll do just fine, too. Quit your worryin'." His lips twitched just enough to give away his teasing intent. "You ain't gonna be gone long enough for me to sell the place out from under you."

"John Lancer." Murdoch's glare carried even more of a warning than his tone, which in itself was enough to have a older woman who happened to be walking by gawking at them with eyes wide enough to prop open with a couple of twenty-dollar gold pieces.

Teresa and Scott both laughed, but Johnny could only groan. Ever since it had been decided that Johnny would not be accompanying the family to Denver, Murdoch had been painstakingly reminding him of everything that needed to be done in their absence - and how to do it, and when to do it, who should do it, and for how long it should be done.

The previous night, in a final act of desperation, Johnny had threatened to up and sell the whole ranch while they were gone. His claim was that he would take the money and buy a nice little bordello in Albuquerque, or maybe Santa Fe. He'd call it the Murdoch's Manor. Then he would track down a few very dear friends - Chastity, Cherry, Cierra, Cassandra, and Calypso.

They were a few gals that were very familiar with Johnny Madrid. All were extremely pretty, and oh so talented; everyone knows you can't run a decent bordello unless there were some mighty fine ladies around. And if he played his cards right, he might even be able to sweet talk Madame Vicki into giving Murdoch a few pointers on how to keep things up, like the profits and such. Needless to say, the Lancer patriarch had not been the least bit amused.

"Oh, Johnny, don't forge-"

"I know, I know; don't forget to make sure the front door is shut good an' tight before I turn in," Johnny sighed. Over Teresa's shoulder, Johnny saw the conductor looking at his pocket watch before casting an impatient stare in their direction. He quickly seized the opportunity provided by the man's impatience. "You all better be getting on board, or that train's gonna be pullin' outta here with out you."

The next thing Johnny knew he had his arms full of Teresa. "We'll be back before you know it," she cried on his shoulder. As usual though, her youthful exuberance was able to overcome her dismay. When she pulled away, her face was bright with excitement. "I already know what I want to get you for Christmas," she declared excitedly, "and I'm sure I'll find it in Denver."

Johnny smiled. "You do that, Teresa."

"Watch that cold, Brother."

All teasing was forgotten, and Johnny found himself feeling uncomfortable under the genuine concern and regret in Scott's sad smile. "Don't worry, Brother. I'll have this thing licked by the time I pick you up next week. And don't you go havin' too much fun without me."

The two brothers shook hands, which Scott turned into a quick hug. An earnest 'Take care of yourself' was whispered in Johnny's ear, then Scott slipped away to escort Teresa towards the train. Longingly, Johnny watched as his brother helped Teresa up the stairs, then both of them disappeared into the train car.


Raising his hands in surrender, Johnny automatically began reciting the words he knew by heart. "Don't worry, Murdoch, the barn roof'll get checked, too. I'll do it myself, first thing tomorrow."

Although Murdoch nodded, his expression was neither stern nor worried. He simply smiled and placed a steady hand on Johnny's shoulder. "All I was going to say was for you to take care of yourself, but I know you will. I have complete faith in you, Son."

The sincerity in both word and look had Johnny swallowing at the lump that suddenly made his throat feel uncomfortably tight. He tuned his head and put his hand to his mouth, trying to cough the stubborn lump away.

When Johnny looked back up at his father, he began his own lecture. "You take care of business, too, Old Man. Don't let that brother of mine get so used to that big city that he takes a hankerin' to head back to Boston. An' you both better keep a real close eye on Teresa. Can't have her bein' sweet talked into marryin' one of them city dandies. Don't think Lancer could handle any more culture and refinement."

The large hand on his shoulder gave a gentle squeeze before pulling Johnny close to his father's chest. "We'll miss you too, Son."

The two men parted somewhat awkwardly, and Johnny found himself unable to watch as his father walked away. He toed at a loose board on the platform, his keen hearing telling him every step of Murdoch's progress; the clunk of boot heels against wood, followed by the more high-pitched clop of soles treading on metal stairs, then the almost deafening sound of clink of the door closing between them.


On the train headed for Denver -

As the train pulled away from Cross Creek Station, Scott looked out the window while Murdoch and Teresa discussed their itinerary in Denver. He gazed out at the mountains, his mind wandering to Boston. He felt a momentary pang of homesickness. Not that he regretted his decision to stay at Lancer. He had been totally lost from the first moment he had laid eyes on the land, when Teresa had announced to him and Johnny that this was the most beautiful place in the whole wide world.

Ever since coming back from the war, the former cavalry officer had been searching for something. It had taken a letter from his father and a trip to visit him to find it. He had felt trapped in the offices of Garrett Enterprises; he assumed this to be a result of his imprisonment in a confederate prison camp.

There were times, though, when he missed the city life of Boston, and Christmas was turning out to be one of those times. Back East his grandfather's servants would be trimming the tree, going all out to decorate the house for the holidays. Harlan Garrett prided himself in having the best decorated home in all of Boston.

Then there were the parties. It was hard to keep up with them all. Men and women alike would be dressed up in their finest clothes. There would be plenty of food, wine, and dancing. Eventually, someone would mention a sleigh ride and everyone would grab their winter apparel and off they'd go.

He also missed the theatre. Scott's thoughts turned to an article he had read in a newspaper his grandfather had sent him about a new play that had just come out, 'The Count of Monte Cristo'. The description had sounded intriguing and in checking he had found out it would be playing in Denver while they were there. He was hoping that once they arrived, he would be able to obtain tickets so that he could take his family to see it. Teresa in particular had mentioned more than once wanting to experience a live production.

Hearing his name mentioned by Murdoch, Scott pulled himself away from his thoughts and concentrated on what Murdoch and Teresa were talking about.

"So," Scott commented smiling. "Do you have our trip all planned out?"

"Yes," Teresa replied, a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. "We're going to a Christmas Party at a friend of Murdoch's. He just volunteered you to take me shopping on Monday for a dress to wear."

Scott groaned loudly. "Murdoch! It takes Teresa hours to find a dress! Why can't you take her?"

"I have some appointments on Monday," Murdoch reminded him firmly. "And on Tuesday, there is a ladies tea to attend. You want your sister to look nice, don't you?"

"All right," Scott conceded grudgingly. "I need to purchase some dress clothes anyway." Though the dark brown pants, with the white dress shirt he was wearing, combined with the tie were considered dress clothes in Morro Coyo, they would not be suitable in a big city like Denver.

"Good!" Teresa said happily. "I can help you shop."

"I am quite capable of picking out my own clothes," Scott protested.

"Yes, we're quite aware of your taste in clothes," Teresa teased. "I seem to recall a certain pair of plaid riding pants."

"They were very popular in Boston." Scott replied defensively.

"I'm sorry," Teresa said, laughter in her voice. "I've just never seen a man wearing those type of pants before."

"They were pretty awful, weren't they?" Scott admitted, smiling at her. "And if you ever tell Johnny I said that, I will deny it."

Teresa turned to Murdoch and mentioned a particular store she wanted to go to while they were there to purchase Johnny's Christmas present. Murdoch asked her advice on a present for Johnny and they were off into a discussion as to what to buy for whom.

Scott looked out the window once again, feeling an unusual pang of loneliness. He wondered what his brother was doing right now. Probably sitting in the great room basking in the solitude. He had not fooled Scott one bit. Oh, it was true that Johnny was not well enough to be traveling in the mountains with his lingering cold, but Scott was also well aware that Johnny had not been looking forward to spending a week in a big city, shopping, or going to a bunch of cattlemen meetings.

The blond-haired Lancer thought about how much his younger brother hated it when anyone coddled him. He was not used to having someone look out for him and Scott knew he had been wearing on his younger brother's nerves ever since Johnny had come down with this cold.

Scott smiled as he looked across at Murdoch. He wondered what his father would think if he knew that Scott had almost backed out at the last minute and told him to take Teresa and go. The former Bostonian frowned. He hated leaving Johnny behind. For the better part of his life, his younger brother had been alone. He fully intended to make sure the former gunfighter was never in that position again. He shifted in his seat, leaning his head on the window, closing his eyes as darkness settled over the train. He was disappointed that Johnny was not making the trip. He had been mentally making a list of places he wanted to take his brother ever since they had first started talking about going. Now that Johnny would not be there to share in those plans, his enthusiasm had waned, though not to the point that he would not enjoy himself. It just would not be the same.

This would have been there first trip as a family. Having a family was something he had always longed for. His grandfather had done the best he could by Scott, but it still wasn't the same. Finally, he had come home. As he drifted off to sleep, Scott mentally thanked God for blessing him with the family he had found.


At Lancer -

It was about an hour after the sun had disappeared behind the San Benito Mountains when Zanzibar pulled the surrey under the Lancer arch. Johnny shuddered as the chilly night air blew under his jacket, but it lasted only a moment. Every time he made his way up this road, the feeling of belonging warmed him. This was his home.

So many years ago he had yearned for this, desperately prayed for a home to call his own, and a family to share his life. It seemed like an eternity ago that he had pushed aside those childhood fantasies as useless and unnecessary. Johnny Madrid had no need for a home, a family, or anything else that could take away his edge, making him easy prey for any gunhawk wanting to make a name for himself.

Johnny Madrid.

Taking a deep breath, Johnny listened to the familiar name echoing in his mind. He was not ashamed of Johnny Madrid, but he found comfort in the fact that he no longer had to wear that mantle. Johnny Madrid had seen him through some very rough times, had made him strong and had been his source of strength at times when Johnny Lancer might have given up.

It was strange how, even then, he saw Johnny Madrid as someone other than himself. It was like he had always been Johnny Lancer, but at the same time, he had not. Lancer had been a name he had hated; yet it had been a name that he had never been able to leave behind. It was always there, sitting in the back of his mind, having more patience than Johnny Madrid could ever possess.

Shaking off those confusing thoughts, he pulled Zanzibar to a halt near the barn. No good would come from going over old ground. Lancer was his life now, and the name he freely chose as his  own. He had never regretted either choice.

In an instant he was on the ground, making the transition from the seat to the ground as easily as he took a breath. He made quick work of unharnessing the buggy and rigging, and Zanzibar eagerly followed him towards the barn,  where a nice ration of grain was waiting.

The surrey could stay under the shed until next Saturday, when it was time to pick up his family. Afterwards, it would be stored away in the buggy barn until next spring, when the weather would be more accommodating for the open-air seating. Any trips to town this winter would be made in one of the buckboards, where the slated sides would provide some measure of protection from the elements for everyone except the driver.

Nimble fingers pulled his jacket closed as another gust of wind brought more chill to the night air. The breeze had blown by the house on its way to the barn, and Johnny caught a whiff of something that brought a broad smile to his face.


These were not the same tamales that normally graced the Lancer dinner table, though. These were Maria's special tamales, the ones she made for him on the side on very rare occasions. She had whispered to him at breakfast that tonight would be one of those occasions. These tamales were made like they were well south of the border, where their worth was based on the degree of their hotness, and where very few gringos dared to tread.

Eager to sink his teeth into those delectable morsels, Johnny quickly, but efficiently, bedded down his father's favorite buggy horse for the night. His spirits were so high that he gave Zanzibar a little extra helping of grain before heading for the house, his stride quick and his stomach growling loudly in anticipation of the meal it was about to receive.

He entered through the kitchen door just as Maria was finishing cleaning up. She had him a plate all ready, and the remaining tamales warming in the oven. Tortillas and salsa rounded out his perfect meal. Johnny told her she was an angel from heaven, and when Maria departed, her eyes were bright with pride as she blushed under the fanfare of Johnny's praise.

Although the meal was even better than expected, Johnny still left the table feeling less than content. He carried the empty dishes over to the sink where he quickly washed them up in the bucket of soapy water Maria had left for him. By the time he had finished cleaning up, he had also figured out what had him feeling so down; his family was missing.

With a chuckle, he doused the candles and headed for bed, amused by his own feelings of longing. If someone had told him a year ago that he would be fretting over people who weren't even around, he would have laughed in their face. A year ago he was still wearing the face of Johnny Madrid, while Johnny Lancer hid in the shadows. Things were different now, and for that he would always be grateful.

His foot had barely touched the bottom step, when he made an about face and headed in the other direction. His smile broadened as he checked the latch on the front door, making sure it was securely in its cradle. "Sure don't want no unexpected visitors in the morning," he said aloud, laughing to himself. "Not after the last time."

Visions of that fateful Sunday morning filled his mind as he climbed the stairs to bed. It had actually started the night before, when he and Scott had gone to town for some beer and a few hands of poker. It had only been a few months since they had become partners in the sprawling ranch, and they were both still getting accustomed to the rigors of ranch life. The end of the week break from work had been a much-welcomed relief to them both.

Undressing in the dark, Johnny climbed between the crisp sheets on his bed. Staring up at the ceiling, he continued his musings. On that night he had learned a couple of valuable lessons about his newly found brother. 

First off, he learned that Scott didn't particularly care for tequila. After a couple of shots had Scott looking a little green around the gills, Johnny fetched up a cup of coffee and a few tortillas, making up some excuse about Scott missing dinner because of some ornery calf, or something like that. The food and coffee solved Scott's problem and the night continued without further incident.

That was when Johnny learned the second lesson of the night; when his Boston-bred brother got annoyed, he was a damn fine bluffer. The incident with the tequila had bothered Scott an awful lot, despite Johnny's assurances the fiery liquid took a little getting used to. Scott had spent the remainder of their night on the town taking his frustrations out at the card table.

Winning all but three of the pots, Scott had taken Johnny for over seven dollars and the privilege of having his horse bedded down for him when they got home. Although Johnny would never admit it, getting to see Scott in action had been worth the money he had lost, as well as the extra time of taking care of his brother's horse.

It was well after midnight by the time they got back to the ranch, and Johnny must have been a little more tired than he thought. After he finished bedding down their horses, he had somehow managed to leave the front door unlatched. It was the only way to explain how the rooster ended up perched on Murdoch's windowsill when the morning sun began to glow in the east. The rooster belted out his usual boisterous cock-a-doodle-doo, sending Murdoch rolling off the side of the bed and landing on the floor with a loud thud. Since then Johnny had been constantly reminded to latch the front door whenever he would be the last to turn in.

Pleasant or not so pleasant, his happiest memories began when he accepted his father's offer to become a Lancer. He had found the home he had always dreamed of, the brother that he had never dared dream of, and a life that he could be proud to call his own. Three strangers had become everything to him, and he wouldn't trade any of them for all the gold in the world. These comforting thoughts settled his restless mind, and Johnny slipped into a contented sleep.

Friday, December 2, 1870:

East Bound Train -

Murdoch stared through the dark window. He guessed it to be about three in the morning. Scott was sleeping in the seat across from him, while Teresa was seated beside her guardian with her head on his shoulder. He shifted slightly in his seat, trying to get comfortable without waking up the young woman. Ever since Day Pardee had shot him in the back, he could not sleep sitting up without experiencing quite a bit of discomfort.

He looked over at Scott, smiling to himself. When his son had come through the door that first day, he had not known what to say to him. He simply looked at Scott and said, 'You've got your mother's eyes'. What he had wanted to say was, 'Welcome home,' or 'I am so glad you came,' but he was scared.

Yes, he could admit to himself that he was scared. Afraid that Scott would look into his eyes and say he was there for the money, or to tell him he hated him, or that he didn't need him in his life. He shifted again, his back beginning to ache a little more.

Nothing could have surprised him more than what happened. Once he had offered him a third of the ranch, Scott had agreed immediately, not even taking a minute to think it over. Since that day, his older son had been out on the range every day, working side by side with the hands, learning to be a rancher.

It had not been easy for him. He had experienced a lot of problems at first. Murdoch laughed silently when he thought about how long it had taken Scott to learn to rope a cow. In the end, however, Scott had succeeded in becoming one of the best ranchers he had ever seen.

Murdoch frowned. When he thought of the past twenty-five years he had missed with his elder son, of all the things he could have shared with Scott while his son was growing up it made him mad. There were times when he had to fight the urge to head straight for Boston and wring Harlan's neck; an effort he made only because he knew such an action would only hurt his son.

Harlan had raised Scott since the day he was born, and though Scott turned out to be a son to be proud of, he did not give one bit of credit to his former father-in-law. That man was cunning, manipulative, and downright evil in Murdoch's eyes. All the traits that Scott did not possess.

His blond son did however remind him of Harlan from time to time. Scott was a take-charge sort of person, well organized, always liked to have a plan of action, and was polite to a fault. Not that these were bad qualities, but at times they reminded him so much of his former father-in-law he could barely stand it.

The Scotsman closed his eyes, knowing he needed to get some sleep yet he could not turn his thoughts away from the past. He knew Scott must have many questions he would like to ask, but his older son was just like him. He did not like to discuss anything personal; it made him feel uncomfortable. As he drifted off to sleep, he knew that one day they would have to have that discussion.


Scott quietly approached their seats on the train. The sun had been up for quite some time now, but Murdoch and Teresa continued to sleep. He had a covered tray in his hands. He carefully sat down in his seat and nudged Teresa, placing the tray in the empty seat next to him.

"Teresa," Scott whispered. "Teresa. Wake up."

Teresa blinked, slowly picking her head up off Murdoch's shoulder, yawning. "What time is it, Scott."

"Shhhhhh," Scott answered, holding his finger to his mouth. "I don't think Murdoch got much sleep last night."

"He didn't," Murdoch replied, opening his eyes. "I'm getting too old to sleep on these train seats."

"I talked to the conductor," Scott explained, handing his father and Teresa each a cup of coffee from the tray. "There is a hotel car with a room available. I arranged for us to be moved. The porter will come for us when it's ready. The room sleeps four and has a curtain that can be pulled across as a divider at night."

"You didn't have to do that," Murdoch protested. "I would have managed."

"You barely slept last night," Scott commented. "Another night like that and you'd end up spending your time in Denver flat on your back."

"Scott's right," Teresa agreed, looking at Scott. "We wouldn't have had any fun in Denver."

"Okay, okay." Murdoch smiled slightly, raising his hands in defeat. "You win!" He yawned, stretching his legs out to try to ease the cramps.

"It wasn't just for you," Scott admitted quietly. "I noticed Teresa woke up quite a few times and I didn't sleep much better."

"He's right," Teresa confirmed. "I just couldn't get comfortable."

"Are either of you hungry?" Scott inquired, indicating the tray beside him. "I brought back a ham omelet for each of you."

"Yes, I am," Murdoch replied, realizing just how hungry he was. "Teresa?"

"Oh, yes, I'm starved," She replied hungrily.

Scott removed the cover and handed them each a plate of food with silverware. He sat back, his mind drifting once more back to Lancer. Johnny was probably up at the first sign of daylight, eating a breakfast of scrambled eggs with chorizo wrapped up in fresh homemade tortillas.

He hoped Johnny was not overdoing it. His younger brother had told him he would be out herding strays, but had promised Scott that he would take it easy and if he felt worse he would stay in bed. Scott smiled at the thought. There was no way his younger brother would stay in bed.

"He'll be fine, Scott," Murdoch said, interrupting his son's thoughts.

"I know, Murdoch," Scott conceded sighing. "I just wish he could have come with us."

"We all do," Murdoch admitted quietly. "But think of all the fun we'll have shopping for him."

"That's true," Scott replied, with a huge grin on his face. "I have a feeling, Johnny will be like a little kid, anxiously waiting for Christmas Day, shaking every present under the tree with his name on it and trying to guess what it is."

"And when he's not shaking it," Teresa agreed giggling, "he'll be driving you crazy, Scott. Trying to get you to tell him."

"All right you two," Murdoch said, a twinkle in his eyes. "Johnny's not that bad!"

"Yes he is, Murdoch!" Teresa declared. "I'll have you know, he's not only been trying to bribe me into telling him what you two get him for Christmas, but for his birthday, too!"

"Oh, he did, did he!" Murdoch stated, a devious look in his eye. "We'll just have to find a way to outsmart him then."

"It will have to be a good one," Scott emphasized. "It's not easy to fool Johnny."

"We'll have plenty of time to think of a plan while we're in Denver," Murdoch commented. They all laughed as the porter walked up, informing them that their hotel car was available.


Later that evening, Scott was sitting in a chair near the window reading a new book, Great Expectations, which his grandfather had sent him, at his request, a few weeks ago. Murdoch was sitting on the sofa, reading a newspaper while Teresa was sitting beside him, knitting a sweater she planned to give to Jelly for Christmas.

The young woman paused for a moment, glanced at Murdoch who was nodding off to sleep, and then at Scott who was buried in his book. She sighed when she thought back to when she first found out Murdoch's sons were coming to Lancer. At first, she was nervous, not knowing what to expect.

Murdoch had explained to her that Scott had lived his entire life in Boston. He told her that his son might seem a little lost when he got there and possibly a bit snobbish, expect to be waited on. She could tell from her guardian's tone that he was unsure of what to expect when Scott arrived. And that he was afraid he would not like Lancer, or worse that he would not like his father.

She had decided right there and then that if he even gave her a hint that he was going to treat Murdoch badly, she was going to tell him to get back on that stage and return to Boston. She would not allow anyone to hurt the man who had stepped in and became a parent to her when her father had been murdered so suddenly.

When he had arrived in Morro Coyo, she thought all her worst fears were going to come true. However, on the way to Lancer, and after the initial meeting between father and son, Teresa realized things were going to be okay. Over the next few months, Scott became one of two brothers to her, something she had always wished for, but thought she would never have.

Her thoughts turned to Johnny. When Murdoch had told her some of what he read in the Pinkerton's report, she thought she was going to faint. His younger son was a famous gunfighter named Johnny Madrid. At first, she was determined that if he decided to stay, she was leaving. There was no way that she would live under the same roof with a man who made his living the same way as the man who had killed her father.

But once Johnny had settled into Lancer that first day, she sensed that he was not the cold-hearted killer that she had been imagining in her darkest dreams. On that day she had watched as the infamous gunfighter fought side by side with his father and older brother to stop a field from being burned. The fire had won, but not before she had decided that she needed to give the man a chance to disprove that Pinkerton report.

The next day, Johnny had watched Scott's fight in town, not stepping in to help out even after she begged him to do so. Later he explained that he could not risk letting Day know of his connection to Lancer; not if he was going to stay on the inside of land pirate's gang in order to gather information. She knew in her heart Johnny would have stepped in if it had looked too badly for his brother.

In the end, both brothers had their own ideas of how to beat Day Pardee; their plans had come together and they had won. Over the next few months, Teresa had formed a bond with both brothers. Oh, in the early days of them living there she had fantasized about one or the other of them falling in love with her and vice versa. They would get married and raise a family. She soon realized that her feelings for both brothers were anything but romantic, which was a good thing, because both men seemed to look upon her as just a sister.

"You'll never get Jelly's sweater done that way," Scott observed, shutting his book.

"I think I'm getting tired," Teresa admitted, laying her knitting in her lap. "I didn't sleep very well last night,"

"You're not the only one," Scott replied, nodding toward Murdoch, who was sleeping, his newspaper had fallen to the floor. "I have to admit to being a bit tired myself."

"I miss Johnny, too," Teresa confessed, smiling sadly. "If only he could have come with us."

"I know," Scott responded quietly. "But we both know that the mountain air would have only made his cold worse."
"I know, but I worry about him all alone at home not feeling well," Teresa complained worrisomely.

"He's not alone," Scott reminded her. "Jelly promised to keep a good eye on him for us. You know how he likes to mother Johnny."

"He will drive Johnny crazy!" Teresa laughed.

"And don't forget Maria and Cipriano," Scott remarked. "They will both be checking on him, also. By the time we get home, he's going to wish he had come along."

"You're right," Teresa agreed, yawning. "I feel much better now."

"Why don't you head on to bed," Scott suggested. "I'll be headed there in a little while."

"Okay," Teresa said, her eyes drooping. She kissed Scott on the cheek. "Good  night."

"Night, Teresa," Scott murmured.

Scott watched her pull the curtain shut to divide off the room. He then carefully picked up Murdoch's legs, putting them across the sofa so that he would sleep more comfortably. Scott covered his father with the blanket that was draped over the back of the sofa. There was a bed above the couch Murdoch was sleeping on, but you had to slide a board into place and make the bed up. He did not want to wake up his father, so he decided another night in a chair would not hurt him any.

He walked over to the window and sat down in the chair that Teresa had recently vacated. He stared out at the mountains, which were visible from the light of the moon. He hoped he was right, that Johnny was feeling better, not worse. As he fell asleep, he thought about how much he already missed his brother on this trip. In such a short time, Johnny had become a very important part of his life. He hoped that once they arrived in Denver and started doing things that he would feel a little less lonesome for his brother's company.


Lancer (earlier that day) -

"Dang it!"

A year ago, Johnny would not have been the least bit successful in resisting the sudden urge to draw his gun and eliminate the source of his most recent annoyance. Then again, a year ago he would have been sitting at a table in a saloon in some border town, maybe with a pretty gal at his side who would eventually take him into her bed for a night of pleasure. The last place he would have been was where he was now; crawling around on a barn roof that seemed to be the favorite outhouse for every bird in the sky.

"Johnny, what in tarnation is ya doin' up there?" Jelly yelled from below. "Yer jes tryin' ta catch pneumonia, ain't cha?"

As if to accentuate the gruff old man's claim, a stiff breeze blew in, bringing with it more of the chill that had been in the air all morning. Ignoring the messy glop on his sleeve, Johnny pulled his jacket closed, and then began inching his way backwards towards the ladder. With every move he made, he managed to wipe a little more of the bird droppings off the roof and onto his clothes.

Another blast of cool air whipped by, and Johnny shuddered as he made his descent. Once on the ground, he turned to the older man and answered brusquely, "I ain't trying to catch nothin'. There was a split shingle up here that needed replacing. Murdoch noticed the light shining through yesterday when we was getting ready to leave for Cross Creek. I promised him I'd fix it first thing this morning, but Walt had me out looking at that creek."

"Well, I ain't so sure he'd be wantin' ya up there if he'd a known it was gonna turn so danged cold. Someone else coulda done that, ya know." Jelly's tirade ended with a sour grimace and a series of sniffs to the air. "What's that awful smell?" About that time he noticed the stains on Johnny's jacket and pants. "Ain't never heard a no cold remedy callin' fer ya ta waller 'round in bird dung."

"Don't tell me, tell them danged birds!" Turning on his heel, Johnny headed back for the house, leaving Jelly with his hands on his hips and an indignant scowl on his face. Besides the obvious reason of feeling like he had been nature's outhouse, Johnny was dismayed by how his head was now more stopped up than it had been during the worst of his cold. He had only been up on the roof a half hour or so, but that had obviously been more than enough time to aggravate his condition.

As soon as he opened the kitchen door, he was immediately overtaken by a soothing wave of warm air. He groaned, knowing that such abrupt temperature changes would only further inflame his condition, but getting into some clean clothes was more important. The foul stench was almost unbearable, even to his own dampened sense of smell. However, his plan to head straight for his room and some fresh clothes was shot down after he got no more than ten feet into the kitchen.

"¡Salga! ¡Usted es muy sucio!" Maria cried out. The broom she had been using to sweep the floor quickly became the weapon of choice to hold him at bay.

"I know I'm dirty, Maria," Johnny sighed as he pushed the broom bristles away from his chest. "But if I get out, I can't get cleaned up. It's just my clothes that are dirty."

"¡Salga! Out of my kitchen. I will bring you some fresh clothes."

A simple broom in the hands of the determined old Mexican woman had become a weapon, like one of those lances that Scott had told him the knights over in England used to use, back when they was always feuding about anything and everything. "You gonna make me change out in the cold? Come on, Maria, it's freezing outside."

Maria, however, was not about to be persuaded to let him any further into the hacienda. "Sí, Juanito. It is nice and warm inside by the fire, and when you no longer smell of the bottom of the chicken coup, you may come in."

The broom was jabbed at his chest and Johnny took a step backwards. Hands up in surrender, he reached behind him and lifted the door latch. "I'll be out in the tool shed. Could you bring me something to change into, por favor."

"Sí, I will bring you some clean clothes," she relented as he stepped outside.

"Gracias." Johnny closed the door and headed for the tool shed out behind Teresa's garden. "I hope you're happy, Old Man," he grumbled under his breath.

"If'n yer talkin' ta me, then, no, I ain't."

Johnny almost leapt out of his skin. "Don't sneak up on me like that, Jelly!" Johnny groused before sneezing loudly. He almost wiped his nose on his sleeve, but thought better of it the second he caught a whiff of the last of the many gifts bestowed on him by the low-flying flock.

"I ain't sneakin' nowhere. Besides, whatcha doin' runnin' 'round out here? Ya should be in there by the fire gettin' that chill off. Ain't you got no sense at all, Boy, or have ya done blown out all yer smarts with all that sneezin' you been doin'?"

With a sigh, Johnny explained, "Maria won't let me inside until I change my clothes. She's gonna bring me something to the tool shed."

"Cain't say as I blame her." Jelly crinkled his nose. "The air 'round ya is a might stout."

Choosing to ignore Jelly's condescending tone, Johnny sighed. At that moment, Maria came scurrying through the garden gate. After shooing Jelly away, she hustled Johnny towards the small building, without getting too close, of course. Once inside, he changed quickly and deposited his soiled clothing in the basket Maria had left by the shed door. "I hope Maria don't
burn 'em," Johnny groaned. "That's my favorite jacket, and shirt, too."

Another hard sneeze sent a shooting pain between his eyes. He was feeling worse by the minute, which made him angry and dismayed. For nearly two weeks he had been battling the tenacious cold, and he had thought he had just about had it licked.

The kitchen was empty when he entered, so he headed for the great room, and the fire he knew would have the area by the sofa nice and warm. "Shoulda gone to Denver. Traveling through them mountains couldn't have been any worse than this."

"It dang well, could, too."

Johnny jumped again as Jelly caught him off guard. Normally no one could sneak up on him so easily, but there was a roaring in his ears that made everything sound like it was muffled by a blanket or something. "Dang it, Jelly. Quit sneakin' up on me. I might accidentally shoot you, or something."

Jelly raised an eyebrow and gave Johnny a wry glare. "Be kinda difficult since ya ain't even wearin' yer gun."

Looking down, Johnny realized that he did not have his gun belt on. Come to think of it, he hadn't even had it on when he was on the barn roof. He must be really sick if he forgot that he took it off before climbing the ladder. "Figures," he groaned.

"If'n ya say so. Now drink this," Jelly held up a large steaming cup of something. "It'll fix ya right up, or my name ain't Jellifer P. Hoskins."

Johnny took the proffered cup, and raised it to his lips, only to move it to arms length in a hurry. The stench made his eyes water and his nose run. "What'd ya do!? Boil my clothes to make this!?"

"Course not. That there brew smells a heap better'n them clothes," Jelly huffed. "That's a tonic I been workin' on since last week, when ya was nearly ready fer yer death-bed. Now quit yer  backtalkin' and drink up."

He was not about to drink that foul-smelling concoction. Jelly was wrong - his bird turd-covered clothes smelled a whole lot better than whatever was in that cup. "I wasn't anywhere near bein' on my death bed," Johnny challenged, in an unsuccessful bid to distract the older man.

"Well, yer gonna be," Jelly argued back. "Now drink it."


Sometime later, Johnny felt Jelly's presence beside him as he climbed the stairs. He wasn't even sure if he drank that awful-smelling mixture or not, and if he had, if it had tasted anywhere near as bad at it smelled. His head was pounding too hard for him to even care. All he knew was that one minute he was walking down the hallway towards his bedroom, and the next he was experiencing the comforting sensation of sinking down into his own bed.

When Johnny woke the next morning, he would have no idea of how he ended up undressed and in bed, but his cold would be much better.

Saturday, December 3, 1870:

Denver -

"The porter just told me we should be arriving in Denver anytime now," Scott reported as he entered their hotel car, sitting down in the chair by the window.
"I can't wait!" Teresa exclaimed, her eyes lighting up as she looked out the window.
"Once we get checked into the hotel, we should get something to eat," Murdoch replied, putting down the book he was reading.
"I want to take a long hot bath," Scott commented sighing. "Why don't we take a little time to unpack, get cleaned up, and then we can find somewhere to have dinner?"
"That sounds like a plan to me," Murdoch agreed.
"What are our plans for tomorrow?" Teresa questioned, anxious to get out and see the city.
"We're going to church with some of the local ranchers," The Lancer Patriarch explained. "After that, we'll eat dinner, return to the hotel for a few hours and then I want to take you two to meet an old friend of mine."
"An old friend?" Scott asked with interest.
"Travis MacPherson. He and I go back a long way," Murdoch explained. "We worked on the docks of Boston together when I first arrived from Inverness."
"I can't wait, Murdoch." There was a teasing gleam in Scott's eyes. "Someone who knew you when you were younger. Johnny is going to be so sorry that he missed this trip."
"Let's get our things picked up," Murdoch growled, ignoring his son. "I'm anxiously for that bath you were talking about.
They all proceeded to quickly pick up their belongings and put them in their carry on bags. Once finished, Scott looked out the window at the approaching city. He felt like a little boy in a candy store. The former Bostonian had not realized until this trip how much he missed the pleasures of city life, and he mentally reminded himself that he had to find out about those tickets for the theatre on Monday.

Looking over at Teresa, he watched as her eyes grew bigger, the closer they got to Denver. She had never been too far from Morro Coyo, except for a few trips to visit friends near Stockton. This was to be her first experience with the big city and Scott wanted to make sure she got to sample a little bit of everything in the short time they were there. Scott smiled to himself as he thought of the surprise that awaited them in Denver.
Another thought brought a slight frown to his features. He hoped that at least one night while they were there, he would be able to go out on his own. As much as he loved his family, he liked time by himself. Murdoch had mentioned before they left home that he wanted to spend some quality time with his son while Teresa was busy with the cattlemen's wives. Though Scott agreed that it would be nice for them to have some time together, he was looking forward to an evening of wining and dining with a beautiful young woman, or maybe an expensive bottle of brandy and a night of poker.
That old feeling of loneliness swept over him once more. Scott had wanted to do those things with his brother. Ever since both brothers had arrived at Lancer, it seemed they had spent all their time working, with only an occasional night here and there for them to go to town, play cards, compete over beautiful women. He shrugged those feelings away as the train came to a stop. His brother was no doubt in town right now, having a good old time. Johnny would be laughing his head off if he knew how much Scott missed him.
After claiming their luggage, Scott quickly got them a carriage. The conductor had informed him that the telegraph office was only a few blocks from the rail station, so after a brief stop to wire Johnny that they had arrived safely, they headed for the hotel. A light drizzle had begun to fall, so upon their arrival they hurried inside.

Teresa and Murdoch looked around in amazement at the luxuriousness of the establishment. The ceilings were high, and the building had to be at least three stories tall. The floor was carpeted with rich maroon carpeting. There were chairs and sofas scattered throughout the room, for guests to sit and relax as they waited for their rooms or to be seated for dinner. The furniture was made of cherry wood; it had turned legs carved with acanthus leaf motif with flattened ball feet. Murdoch pulled Scott aside.
"Scott, this isn't the hotel where I asked you to make reservations."
"I took the liberty of registering us here," Scott whispered, glancing at Teresa who was still awestruck by the beauty. "I wanted to make this trip a memorable one for Teresa. She works awfully hard at the ranch, and I wanted to show my appreciation."
"The money I had you wire couldn't possibly have covered the bill," Murdoch protested.
"I paid for it out of my own money," Scott explained. "Consider it an early Christmas present to us all." He walked over to the desk, patiently waiting his turn.
"Murdoch," Teresa's voice was dripping with admiration. "This place is simply beautiful."
"Yes, it is," Murdoch agreed absently. It never ceased to amaze him how thoughtful Scott was, both of his sons actually. They came from such different worlds but were so similar in many ways. It had been such a disappointment when Sam had suggested that it would be better if Johnny did not make the trip. This would have been a rare opportunity for Johnny to learn a little about the world in which Scott had grown up.

A few moments later, Scott returned with a young porter who quickly picked up their bags, carrying them up to their suite. Scott tipped him generously, turning to Murdoch as he left.  

"This is the sitting room. There are three adjoining rooms." Scott pointed to the doors. "The women's bathroom is the first door to the right and the men's is on the left. The porter will be back to let us know when they are available."
"I'm going to start unpacking," Teresa said, picking up her suitcase, she headed for one of the rooms.
"This must have cost you a small fortune," Murdoch complained, once Teresa had disappeared into one of the rooms. "I can't let you do this Scott!"
"Don't worry about it, Murdoch," Scott replied quietly. "I used money from my trust fund."
"Harlan's money!" Murdoch barked, frowning deeply.
"No," Scott countered. "It was left to me by my grandmother." He felt awkward discussing this with his father. There was no love lost between his father and grandfather, which bothered Scott. He cared about both of them and wished they could get along, for his sake if nothing else. "I'm going to get unpacked, so I'll be ready for that bath when the porter gets back." Scott picked up his bags, heading for a bedroom door.
"Good idea," Murdoch nodded, pausing for a moment. "Scott."
"Yes," Scott paused, turning slightly.
"This was a nice thing to do," Murdoch replied uncomfortably.
Scott grinned widely. "It was a selfish thing to do; I like being waited on."
Murdoch chuckled at Scott's comment, disappearing into the third room. He wondered what other surprises his son had in store for them on this trip.
"Are you two ready to go to dinner?" Scott asked several hours later as he joined his family in the sitting room. They all felt better after a bath and a change of clothes.
"I'm starved," Murdoch growled impatiently. "What took you so long?"
"You're worse than I am!" Teresa teased.
"I spent a little too much time enjoying my bath," Scott admitted sheepishly. "Let's go downstairs, I made us reservations at the hotel restaurant." Checking his pocket watch he was reassured that he had not spent too much time enjoying his bath. "We still have a few minutes to spare."
They proceeded to the dining room, where they were seated and ordered promptly.  "Do you both have your Christmas lists written out?" Teresa asked, taking a drink from her glass.
"No," Scott replied, shaking his head. "I know what I want to get you two, but I don't have a clue about Johnny. I have to find the right gift. It's going to be a challenge."
"I know what I'm getting him," Murdoch informed them. "He was complaining before we left Morro Coyo that his rifle was jamming frequently."
"He's hard to buy for," Scott complained. "I already purchased a case of tequila for him. It's hidden under my bed at home." He shuddered at the thought. Tequila and Scott just did not mix.
"I miss him," Teresa declared tearfully. "I wish he was here."
"He doesn't," Scott said, a mischievous look in his eye. "Look around you, this is the last place on earth Johnny would want to be."
"Scott's right, Teresa," Murdoch murmured in agreement. "Johnny would be saying this place was too fancy for him. Then he'd be out that door, heading for a nice quiet restaurant."
Everyone fell silent, each lost in their own thoughts. Murdoch wondered what his younger son was doing right now. Johnny was probably in town with the boys, having a drink or playing cards.
He thought back to when Johnny was a young child, before Maria had taken their son and left Lancer. He had been a happy, bubbly little boy. Always wanting to be where his daddy was. Though Murdoch had missed his older son deeply, in some ways it had been much harder on him to lose Johnny.
Murdoch had never held Scott, had not been there for his first words, to see him take his first step. The first time he had laid eyes on his blond son, he had been five years old, dressed in what he termed to be a 'monkey suit'. Scott had not looked like a happy, joyful child; his son had been the younger version of his grandfather, quiet and polite.
The Scotsman thought back to the first time he had laid eyes on Johnny after all those years. It had been a shock to see how much Johnny had grown up. Realistically, he knew he would not be the same little child he was so long ago, but he had not expected this handsome, grown-up young man to walk in.
Murdoch remembered he had told Scott that he had his mother's eyes and his younger son had stood there staring at him. Johnny had not given an inch through their initial meeting and he had not agreed to help his father keep Lancer until after they had battled the latest of Pardee's fires.
Johnny was the exact opposite of Scott, in fact there were times during those first few days when Murdoch had worried that the gunfighter might change his mind and join sides with Day Pardee. But like Scott, Johnny had chosen to help his father and Lancer had been saved. 

The Patriarch would never forget the feeling in his stomach when Johnny signed the legal document at the lawyer's office. He had asked the attorney to change Johnny's name to read 'Madrid' and his younger son had told him no, he would be using the name 'Lancer' now. Everyone in the room broke out with a smile. Johnny Lancer had indeed returned home.

He shook his head, smiling to himself. They were supposed to be in Denver, taking a break from the everyday grind of ranching, having a good time.
"I propose a toast." Murdoch picked up his wine glass and held it up in front of him. As soon as Scott and Teresa had done likewise, Murdoch said the words from deep within his heart. "To our family, both present and at home. May we find peace and joy in the coming holidays."
"Let this be the best Christmas Johnny has ever had, and may we be successful in keeping his gifts a secret," Scott added.
"That above all we remember that family is the most important thing of all," Teresa joined in.
They touched glasses, everyone taking a drink, the conversation turning to the upcoming cattle rancher meetings. This was Scott's first time attending them and his father wanted to make sure he was well prepared for the topics of discussion. Scott rolled his eyes at Teresa at one point, bored with the conversation. His gaze roaming around the room, he was just too tired to listen to his father right now.
Just as he was pulling his eyes back toward his father, he saw an incredibly beautiful woman. She had long flowing auburn hair, with the greenest eyes he had ever seen. He was so entranced with watching her that he did not hear his father's question.
"Scott!" Murdoch demanded. "Are you listening to me?"
"Ah...what?" Scott answered guiltily, pulling his eyes away from the woman and looking at his father. "I'm sorry, Murdoch, but I'm just too tired to listen tonight." He yawned as if in confirmation. "All I want to do right now, is go to bed."
"It was a pretty long trip," Murdoch admitted. "Why don't we call it an early night? We're going to be busy the next few days."
They headed upstairs, each going into their bedroom with a quiet good night. Scott undressed, climbing into bed, pulling the covers over him. He wondered who that woman was and whether he would see her again. Though he missed his younger brother, he had to admit to himself as he fell asleep that this trip was starting to look better and better.


Lancer -

"I'll see you, and raise you two bits."

Johnny stared across the table over the edge of his cards to study Frank's face as two bits were tossed casually into the pot.

The black Lancer hand had been a slave before the war. Afterwards, with his freedom and a dream, he had headed west in an effort to leave the horrors of his past behind. Frank was now one of the best cowboys in the whole area. He had been at Lancer a little over a year before Johnny and Scott had arrived, and had stayed loyal during the incident with Pardee. Frank was someone Johnny had come to trust without hesitation.

However, when it came to poker, Frank was a scoundrel. Johnny was determined to win back the four dollars from the last hand. He schooled his features, revealing nothing about the cards he held in his hand - at the least he had a straight, at best he could bump that up to a royal flush, providing he was willing to take the chance.

"You gonna take all night, Johnny? You in or out?" Walt asked impatiently from his seat on Johnny's left.

Deciding to take the more cautious path, Johnny tossed in his bet. "I'm in. You happy, now, Walt?"

"Took ya long enough, Lancer," Walt complained as he tossed two cards face down on the table. "Give me two, Frank, and make 'em good ones this time."

"Sure thing, Walt. Two of the best comin' right up." Frank dealt out two cards onto the table in front of Walt, while not doing a very good job of containing the big grin that was just itching to burst out on his lips.

Walt tipped up the corner of the two new cards, and then tossed his hand down on the table in disgust. "If that's the best you got, I'd sure hate ta see the worst in that deck. I'm gonna grab another beer."

After pushing his chair back from the table, Walt stood up and headed for the bar. Lester, who was sitting between Walt and Frank, tossed two bits into the pot. "I'm in," he said without taking any more cards. "Hey, Walt, why don't you let one of them perty little fillies bring you another drink? That's what they're here for, ya know."

The scowl on Walt's face deepened. "I know exactly what they're here for, and I can get my own beer. Don't like the idea of havin' ta buy one of them a drink for my troubles. Besides, I got some business ta tend to that they can't help me with." Walt headed for the back door, which opened to the alley and was the quickest way to the nearest outhouse.

"Don't be so sure, Walt," Lester yelled out to Walt's retreating back. "Might even be able to give you a couple pointers."

Johnny barely contained his amusement at Lester's crude dig at Walt, while Frank and Willie, the fifth man at the table, did not even bother to mask their amused snickers. Walt and Lester could only be described as best friends would did not particularly like each other that much. Popular opinion among the Bar D and Lancer hands - Walt worked at the Bar D, while Lester was one of the Lancer crew - was that no one else could stand being around either man on a regular basis, so they became buddies out of necessity.

Willie had folded before Johnny's call, and with Walt out, that left Johnny, Frank and Lester to decide who was the winner over the nearly twenty dollars in the pot. "What ya got, Johnny?" Frank asked with a grin.

"Straight, jack high," Johnny said as he laid his hand face up on the table. The immediate frown on Lester's face told Johnny that his hand had the man beat, an observation that was confirmed when Lester tossed his cards down and stood up. "I'm gonna get me a beer before you two take me for my last dollar."

Frank's grin had faded and he was shaking his head, but the fact that his cards were still in his hand said that maybe things weren't what they seemed. "Okay, Frank, let's have a look."

Very painstakingly Frank laid his cards down, face up, one at a time. As he placed the last care on the table, he looked up at Johnny with a raised eyebrow. "What you reckon the odds are on this one, Johnny?"

A grin slowly spread over Johnny's face as he watched a mirror image of his own hand laid out on the table in front of him. The suits were different, which didn't matter for a straight, but the sequence was exactly the same - seven, eight, nine, ten, jack. With a chuckle, Johnny lifted his beer mug in salute to Frank, then downed the last gulp of the yellow liquid.

"That's a split pot, if I'm rememberin' right," Frank stated a little too nonchalantly.

"Got something in mind?" Johnny asked, knowing for a fact that Frank did. Frank was a good poker player, but beyond that he was a con man.

"How about a double or nothin', three card draw, highest card takes all?"

Johnny eyed the pot speculatively. If Scott were here he would tell Johnny he was a fool for even considering Frank's suggestion. 'Pocketing half a pot is better than losing it all,' the sensible Bostonian would say. Only thing, Johnny was not feeling too sensible at the moment. For the first time in over two weeks, he did not feel like a walking head cold, and to celebrate, he was not above being a little reckless. "Sure, Frank. I feel lucky tonight."

Walt returned with Lester in tow. The two men sat down and eyed the table, the pot still where it was when they left, and the obvious tie spelled out with the two upturned hands. Lester snorted. "You two gonna split that up, or are ya just gonna stare at it all night?"

"We're waiting for you two to get back," Johnny said with a grin.

"Why?" Walt asked suspiciously.

"Cause Frank and me decided to make this a little more interestin'. Ain't no sense in breakin' up a happy pot, now is there?" Johnny drawled. "Since it's obvious none of you is cheatin', you're gonna help us out."

Willie, who had been sitting back quietly contemplating his losses, leaned forward. "Three a us, an' three draw cards. That what yer thinkin', Johnny?"


"Now, Johnny, you're not insinuating that I'm dealing funny, are you?" In another place and another time, Frank's question could have gotten a whole lot of trouble stirred up, but the gleam in his eye negated any ill feelings his teasing statement might have otherwise invoked.

"Nope." Johnny grinned back at the black man.

Frank laughed and gathered up the cards, then passed the deck to Willie. "You shuffle, Willie. Then you, Lester, and Walt can pick Johnny an' me three cards each."

While the cards were shuffled and the draws made, Johnny and Frank stared each other down across the table. Johnny had liked Frank from the beginning. The man was easy to talk to and had never once judged Johnny for his past as Johnny Madrid. Frank nearly got trampled by a steer once, and while Johnny was tending to him he found out why.

Scars from the lash of a whip marred the black man's back. Frank told Johnny a few things about his life as a slave, and Johnny could not help but respect the man for surviving such a life. Through all the hardships he had endured along the border, Johnny had always had his freedom. He was not sure he could survive having that taken away for more than the few short stints he had spend in various jail cells.

In a show of respect, he had been willing to share a bit of himself with Frank, although he had never expected it to be so little. He had barely gotten out that he had been a gunfighter, when Frank slipped his torn shirt back over his bruised shoulders and turned to Johnny, looking him dead in the eye. 'Do I ever have to worry about you gunning me down for no reason?' Frank had asked as plain as day. Johnny told him 'no'. Frank nodded and walked over to his horse. That was the last time Johnny's past had ever been mentioned by the other man.

"Okay, Johnny, let's see what you got," Frank grinned without breaking eye contact.

Both men picked up the cards the others had picked for them and Johnny couldn't help but grin when he looked down at what had to be the winning card. He tossed out his high card and reached out to rake in the pot when Frank cleared his throat rather loudly.

"Not so fast, Johnny." Frank tossed down his high card next to Johnny's. The ace of spades had come from Johnny's hand, and the ace of hearts from Frank's. "Guess we'll have to go to the next highest to break this tie."

"Reckon so," Johnny snickered. He had been sure his ace would be enough, but was confident his second would do the trick. "King of hearts," he announced as he tossed the red card down on top of the ace he had previously played.

Frank laughed and shook his head. He tossed out his second high card and announced just as smugly, "King of spades."

The three other men groaned at what was turning out to be the most amazing string of coincidences they had seen in a long time. By now several of the saloon gals were huddled just behind Willie, intrigued by the rather unusual display of competition.

Johnny let loose a groan of his own and tossed down his final card - the two of clubs. He was already digging his money pouch out of his boot for the double he had lost when Frank tossed down his last card. Johnny rolled his eyes and sat back in his chair. "You gettin' the feeling there's a couple of dollars in that pot that like each other about as much as Lester and Walt?"

Ignoring Walt's indignant look, Frank gazed down at his two of hearts lying next to Johnny's two of clubs. "I do believe so, Johnny. I suggest-"

"I suggest that youse two split up them dollars so's Johnny can git on back home 'fore he has hisself a relapse," a grizzled voice joined them from behind Johnny's chair.

Sighing, Johnny wondered that it had taken Jelly this long to track him down. "I feel fine, Jelly," he called over his shoulder as he and Frank made quick work of divvy up the pot.

"Sure ya do, now," Jelly continued grumbling. "Ya push it an' yer gonna be needin' a nuther dose of my special tonic."

Johnny grimaced at the thought of the foul smelling potion he still did could not actually remember drinking. The other men broke out laughing. "That bad, Johnny?" Frank asked.

"Worse, I think," Johnny lamented as he stuffed his winnings into his money pouch and then put the pouch back in his boot. "I'll see you guys next week," he said to Walt and Willie. To Lester and Frank he added a friendly, "see you two in the morning." With Jelly following close behind, Johnny headed out the door.

Jelly chattered about everything and nothing all the way home, but Johnny tuned out the grumbling. Instead, his thoughts were on how much he wished Scott had been playing with them that night.

Scott would have been impressed by the outlandish streak of matching hands, not to mention that he would have insisted that Johnny and Frank keep on playing. 'Would have probably put up the matching pot, too,' Johnny thought to himself. Scott was one of the most competitive people Johnny had ever met, and he did not figure his brother would be satisfied with a tie, especially two of 'em over the same pot.

"Whatcha grinnin' about?" Jelly asked as the pulled their horses to a halt by the corral.

Johnny reply sounded as melancholy as he felt. "Just wondering what Scott's doing right now."

"I'll tell ya what he's doin', he's sleepin', like anyone with half a lick a sense'd be doing. Must be near dawn by now. Be gettin' ta sleep 'bout the time fer the sun ta come up."

Jelly's grumbling continued as the horses were unsaddled and bedded down for the night, but Johnny's thoughts were only of his family and how far they were away from him. As much as he longed to be with them, just the though of having to endure a week in the confines of a city the likes of Denver made him glad it was them and not him. Monday was only a week away, and he had a good story to tell Scott when they got back.

Sunday, December 4, 1870:

Denver -

Scott rolled over, groaning at the thought that he had to get up in a few minutes to attend church with Teresa and his father. He wanted to pull the covers over his head and sleep for another two or three hours. He smiled when he thought about that woman he saw in the restaurant. He threw back the covers, climbed out of bed, walking over to the wardrobe closet, taking out his dress clothes.

He quickly dressed, anxious to start the day. Scott had never been to Denver before, but he had read a lot about it. Looking over at the shelf clock on the dresser, he groaned even louder. It was only seven o'clock in the morning; he did not have to get ready for church for another hour.

He walked over the window and looked out, watching as the sun came up over the mountains. A light powder of snow has fallen during the night and the sun reflecting off it made everything glisten. The former Bostonian felt the memories of sledding and ice-skating wash over him. He remembered many times as a young boy, heading for the big hill just down the road from where he lived with his grandfather.

He would meet up with some of his friends and they would spend the day on the big hill. Then one of the boys would invite everyone back to their house for hot chocolate or cider. Oh, Scott knew he was not supposed to go. His grandfather was very specific in his instructions that he was to come straight home, but he went anyway. There was a sense of family in those homes, something for which Scott had always felt an intense yearning.

Eventually, his grandfather's butler would come looking for him. As soon as he heard his name being called, Scott would quickly put on his winter clothes, grab his hat and gloves, and run to meet the man. Rollins, as Scott referred to the butler, would take his hand and they would head home. Never once in all those years had the butler told Harlan that the young boy had disobeyed him.

Scott walked back over to the dresser, picking up his rounded dress hat. He had not worn that hat since the day he first arrived in Morro Coyo. His whole world had changed since that day, and he was a better man for it. He stepped out of his bedroom, he quietly shut the door behind him.

"Can't sleep?" Murdoch asked softly when he looked up from the paper he was reading.

"No," Scott whispered. "I think my body's used to getting up with the cows."

"There's coffee or hot tea on the table," Murdoch informed him, pointing. "I went downstairs to inquire about a newspaper and the desk clerk sent one up along with the tray. There are some sweet rolls there, too, if you want one."

Scott placed his hat on the end table next to the sofa and headed over to the table. He poured himself a cup of hot tea, picked up a sweet roll, sitting down in the chair across from his father. "Teresa still sleeping?"

"Yes, she was falling asleep in her chair at dinner last night," Murdoch commented smiling slightly.

"I was pretty tired too," Scott admitted, taking a drink of his tea, sighing. "This is really good."

"You know, Teresa could make you hot tea at home," Murdoch informed him, frowning at the possibility that there were things about Boston his son missed, and that could easily be provided at Lancer.

"Coffee's fine, Murdoch," Scott replied, setting the cup down. "But, I do like a cup of tea every now and then."

"Does it feel good to be in the city?" Murdoch inquired, almost afraid of his son's answer. "Do you miss all the comforts of Boston?"

Scott stared at his father, stunned that he would ask him such a personal question. Murdoch was a lot like Scott in this respect, he did not discuss anything personal as a general rule. "Ah...yes," he admitted seriously. "It's nice to be in the city, but," he paused to gather his thoughts. "I couldn't live in Boston anymore. Lancer is my home; it's where I belong."

Murdoch visibly relaxed upon hearing those reassuring words. "I'm happy to hear that, Son."

"So," Scott quickly changing the subject, "tell me what to expect at the meetings we're attending this week. I was too tired to listen last night." The blond-haired Lancer was relieved when his father started right in with details on the upcoming meetings. He was afraid the conversation would have turned to his grandfather; a topic that both Lancer men tended to avoid.


Teresa and Scott walked into the church, followed by Murdoch, who was discussing cattle with one of the ranchers they had met for breakfast. The blond-haired Lancer looked at Teresa with a wide grin, knowing they were both thinking the same thing. Murdoch Lancer lived and breathed one thing; ranching.

When Teresa made a move towards the front of the church, Scott nonchalantly put his hand on her elbow and guided her into the last pew, looking around them the whole time. He wanted to be able to see all the people who came to the service, in case......Scott stopped short of his thought, stunned. He had not realized before how much of an affect Johnny was having on him. His younger brother was always trying to beat it into his head that you always sit where you can see everyone, and you make sure you are close to the door. He shook his head in dismay. Like it would do him any good, anyway. His weapon was back in the hotel room.

Scott glanced up as Murdoch sat down next to him, frowning at their location. "I thought you'd feel more comfortable sitting here," Scott whispered in response to the unvoiced question. "If your back starts hurting, you won't have to leave in front of the whole congregation."

Before Murdoch could reply, the minister came out to the pulpit, welcoming everyone to church. As the sermon progressed, Scott tried in vain to keep his thoughts on what was being said. Finally, his eyes started roaming, looking at the parishioners who were attending the service that day, coming to an abrupt stop when they settled on a woman sitting about four rows ahead of him on the other side of the church.

It was her! The woman from the restaurant last night. He hoped that she would be attending one of the dances that he would be attending in the coming week. Realizing that the minister was concluding his sermon, Scott guiltily pulled his attention back to the pulpit. The preacher said his final words to the congregation, finishing with a prayer.

Scott stood up, following Murdoch out of the church, stepping to the right as more parishioners left. Murdoch turned to say something to him, when a smile broke out across his face.

"Travis!" Murdoch yelled across the crowd. "Travis MacPherson!"

Scott's eyes followed his father's gaze, watching as a big burly sandy haired man headed there way, slowly moving through the crowd. Murdoch shook hands with him, turning to Teresa and Scott. "Travis, I want you to meet my ward, Teresa O'Brien."

"It's nice to meet you, Mr. MacPherson," Teresa said politely, extending her hand.

"The pleasure's all mine, young lady," Travis stated warmly. "Murdoch's told me a lot about you."

"And this is my son Scott." There was genuine pride in Murdoch's introduction. "Catherine's boy."

"Nice to meet you, Sir." Scott smiled cordially as he shook the man's hand.

"You and I have to talk about your father," Travis responded cheerfully. "The stories I could tell you about him!"

"I can't wait." Scott grinned broadly. "A little blackmail information could come in handy."

"Scott," Murdoch said gruffly, a hint of laughter in his eyes.

"I want you all to come for dinner, my cook is expecting you," Travis stated firmly, clearly not willing to take no for an answer. "Do you need to return to your hotel for anything?"

"Scott? Teresa?" Murdoch inquired, seeing the shake of their heads, he turned back to Travis. "It looks like we're all set."

"Well, come on then," Travis declared. "We have a lot of catching up to do." He motioned them to follow him. "That's my carriage and driver right there." They got in the carriage and headed towards his home.


After a leisurely dinner, Murdoch and Travis retired to the living room, while Scott and Teresa went for a walk through Denver, wanting to give the old friends a chance to catch up on their lives. Upon returning to the house, Teresa and Scott sat down on the sofa, each with a cup of hot mulled cider.

"Did you enjoy your walk?" Murdoch inquired with interest.

"Oh, Murdoch!" Teresa exclaimed, a smile lighting up her face. "You should see all the stores, we're going to have so much fun shopping tomorrow."

"I can't wait," Scott groaned.

Travis turned to Scott. "Your father tells me you grew up in Boston."

"That's right." Scott confirmed. "I moved to California recently."

"I met your mother several times." Travis murmured quietly. "She was a lovely woman, you remind me of her."

"Thank you, sir." Scott replied. He hoped that during their stay in Denver, he would have the opportunity to visit with his father's friend alone. There were so many questions about his mother that he did not feel comfortable asking his father or his grandfather. Scott wanted to know what she was like, did she like California, and how his parents had met.

"Mr. MacPherson," Teresa interjected, setting her cup down. "What was Murdoch like when you knew him."

"Murdoch was always a hard worker," Travis replied, a mischievous look in his eye. "But when the weekends came, he liked to enjoy himself just as much as the next man."

"Travis!" Murdoch groaned.

"I remember one time," Travis began, caught up in his story. "Murdoch and I were playing poker, it was a Friday night and we'd just got paid. Your father went and put his money in the bank, except for a little money for the game."

"Come on, Travis," Murdoch pleaded good-naturedly.

"Well, your father got a little bit snookered," Travis leaned forward, whispering. "He climbed up on the bar, starting singing an old Scottish song at the top of his lungs."

"Murdoch!" Scott exclaimed, looking at his father, trying to hold back his laughter.

"By the time he finished singing, he had his shirt half off," Travis continued, starting to laugh himself. "He ended up spending the night in jail. Of course, I bailed him out in the morning."

"Enough!" Murdoch growled, even though the laughter was easily seen in his eyes. Teresa started to giggle and Scott broke out laughing, soon to be joined by his father and Travis.

Murdoch proceeded to tell an embarrassing story of his own. Scott and Teresa sat there entranced, listening as the two old friends, as they told story after story. Finally, Murdoch looked at the shelf clock. "I didn't realize it was so late," he said as he rose to his feet. "We need to return to our hotel before it gets too late. We have a busy week ahead of us."

"You're still planning on coming to my Christmas Party," Travis reminded him. "It's Wednesday night, I'll send a driver to pick you up."

"We wouldn't miss it," Murdoch assured him, smiling.

"My driver will give you a ride back to your hotel," Travis offered warmly. "It was nice meeting you," Travis said to Scott and Teresa.

They quickly said their good-byes and returned to their hotel. As they approached their suite, Scott noticed the door was partially ajar.

"Murdoch," Scott warned, pointing to the door, silently cursing the practice of not carrying a weapon in the city.

"Teresa," Murdoch whispered firmly. "Go downstairs and get the hotel manager."

Teresa nodded, hurrying towards the stairs. Murdoch and Scott watched until she was safely out of sight and then cautiously entered the room. The first thing they noticed was that all three bedroom doors were wide open.

Scott carefully looked into Teresa's room, seeing no one in there he proceeded to his own. After checking to make sure no one was present, he walked over to the dresser and pulled open a drawer, it was empty. He went around the room looking through everything, but there was nothing left; his clothes, his gun, and his wallet - they were all gone.

"Scott," Murdoch yelled, entering the room. "We've been robbed!"

"I know," Scott replied angrily. "We better check Teresa's room, but I'm sure we'll find it the same."

They quickly entered her room, only to find that everything of hers was missing, too. They walked out into the sitting room, just as Teresa returned with the local sheriff and the hotel manager. The lawman had been leaving the hotel restaurant when he overheard the young woman talking to the manager, so he accompanied them upstairs to assess the situation.

The sheriff quickly took a report and told them he would do his best to try to recover their property, but quite frankly he did not have much hope. Murdoch thanked them for their time and they left. Scott and Teresa were sitting dejectedly staring at the floor.

"So, what are we going to do?" Scott inquired angrily.

"Tomorrow, we'll purchase some new clothes." Murdoch stated solemnly. "We'll get up, eat breakfast and then send a telegram to Johnny informing him we've had a change of plans, we'll be leaving Denver Wednesday evening, after the last meeting. We'll be running low on money by then."

"That's fine with me," Teresa said sadly. "The fun has been taken out of this trip."

"It's settled then," Scott agreed discouraged. "We better all get a good night's sleep." They all headed for their own rooms, silently closing the doors.

Climbing into bed, Scott mentally kicked himself for leaving his wallet in his room. He was used to having a tab in hotels such as this, and had in fact opened one when he signed in yesterday. He was relieved they were heading home early, as he didn't know how he would have paid the bill when they got ready to leave for home at the end of the week. He had sent a deposit, but the balance of the bill he intended to pay when they checked out.

As he fell asleep, he thought of the only good thing to come out of this. He missed his brother, and would get to see him sooner.


Lancer -

After spending the morning tending the livestock and performing the necessary chores that did not go away just because it is Sunday, Johnny settle down at the kitchen table. Lunch consisted of another helping of Maria's fabulous tamales. He savored each bite of the heavenly food, knowing that as soon as his family returned the meals would return to normal. Not that they were bad, just that he sometimes missed some of the few pleasant reminders of the days that had been previous life in Mexico.

He missed his family more, though, but he was also glad that his brother was getting to spend some time in Denver. Although not one complaint had ever been uttered in regards to the life left behind in Boston, Johnny could tell there were times when Scott longed for the hustle and bustle of a being in a big city. As far as Johnny knew, except for the time spent in the Army, his brother had lived his entire life being the toast of Boston society – and Morro Coyo was no Boston.

Johnny did not know much about high society, but he knew enough from the way Scott talked about growing up as 'Harlan Garrett's grandson' - Scott always said the phrase like it annoyed him on some level - to know that Scott's grandfather was a very important man in Boston, and that he took great pride in Scott's accomplishments. Not that Johnny could fault the old man for that.

Scott was smart and talented, but there was so much more to his older brother than just his schooling and his maternal heritage. Sometimes Johnny wondered if Mr. Garrett was proud of those other things, too. Not many men Johnny had ever come across were as fair and open-minded as Scott Lancer, and Johnny would be proud to call him brother for those reasons alone.

Maria had departed for the day to be with her own family, so Johnny made a quick clean up of the kitchen and his dirty lunch dishes. He never had anyone to clean up after him before, and it had taken some getting used to when he had first arrived. From the way Scott talked, his grandfather employed a numerous people to take care of just about everything, yet, without hesitation, Scott still helped out in the kitchen on those rare occasions when the women where away.

Having stalled as long as he could, Johnny poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and headed for the great room and the task he had been dreading all morning - bookkeeping. He hated the paperwork part of being a ranch owner more than any other job.

In contrast, Murdoch loved it. He actually seemed to gain quite a lot of  satisfaction from getting the figures to add up and down and across and every whichaway, and then would get to adding and subtracting and come up with what he called the 'bottom line'. Scott was not nearly as bad, but even he got a triumphant smile on his face whenever things worked out the first time.
For Johnny, fighting with numbers on a piece of paper was something he did not understand. Murdoch was always on him to take more interest in the financial end of the business, but Johnny just could not seem to find any satisfaction in what he viewed as a boring and useless chore. Scott had tried to explain to him about profits and margins and a bunch of other terms that Johnny could not care less about, but in the end, Johnny still could not get beyond the waste of time, as he saw it.

"If ya got money in the bank at the end of the month, then it musta been a good month. If you ain't, it's too late to be doing anything about it," he muttered as he sat down in at his father's desk. He pulled the ledger book from the bottom draw, the stack of receipts from the top drawer, and began working.

Very carefully he logged each piece of paper, one at a time, making sure each line balanced out before he went on to next. His methods irritated Murdoch, who said that the totals at the bottom - footings, Scott had said they were called - would be off if you had any problems. Murdoch seemed to think it was a waste of time to look for something wrong before you even knew if there was something wrong.

"Make sure you do it right in the first place," Johnny grumbled to himself. "Then you ain't gotta worry about them footy things being off balance." So Johnny did things his way, Murdoch complained and grumbled about him taking too much time, and Scott just smiled and shook his head.

"Dang, I wish they was here."

Almost instantly, Johnny was laughing at his own sentimental foolishness. It wasn't like he they had been gone that long. The first day he had spent most of the time on the road between Lancer and Cross Creek, with a stop in Green River to do some important banking that Murdoch had to have thought would prevent pestilence and famine from descending on Lancer. Then, he went to bed early, after finishing dinner.

He had slept away most of the next day, except for this time on the barn roof wallowing in bird poop. Thankfully, he had woken yesterday morning to find his favorite shirt and jacket all clean and fresh smelling right there on top of the laundry. He would have to think of something real nice to do for Consuela for getting them cleaned up for him. He also awoke to a clearer head, though from what he could remember of the night before, he felt better if he did not dwell on that aspect too much.

Yesterday was Saturday, and he had covered just about every inch of the ranch - at least it felt like it, anyway - checking on the various work crews, and gathering information to plan out the next week's work schedule. That was paperwork he could understand; not like these books of numbers that made him cross-eyed.

There really had not been much time to miss his family until last night. Johnny had needed and enjoyed the distraction of the trip to town and the rather interesting poker game, but the whole time he had the niggling feeling that something was missing - he knew that something was Scott. He could not remember the last time he had played a game of poker without Scott being in a chair at the same table. He found he missed his brother's steadfast presence more than he would ever have dreamed possible.

"You're acting like some lovesick puppy," Johnny scolded himself and grabbed the next receipt. "They'll be back in a week, and then you'll be wishin' you had some more time to yourself."

Johnny ignored the laughter he heard in his head. Truth was, he had lived most of his life alone, had depended on no one, and had answered to no one, either. Only when he was on a job did he take orders, and then he followed them only to the extent that they went along with his own way of thinking. All that was in the past, though, and now that he knew the comfort and peace of having a family around him, the solitude that had once been considered a blessing was now turning out to be more of a hardship.

Pushing the pointless thoughts aside, he worked at a steady pace to demolish the stack of receipts from the prior week. He initialed, dated, and put the ledger page number in the bottom right corner of each receipt, tallied the columns, checked the footings, and with a sigh of relief, closed the ledger just in time for the grandfather clock begin chiming the hour of six o'clock.

He pushed himself up out of the cushioned leather chair, stood and stretched out his back and shoulder muscles, before grabbing his empty coffee mug and heading for the kitchen. An hour later, he returned to the great room. The evening chores had been done, his stomach was full, and he had a fresh cup of coffee in hand. It was time to plop down on the sofa and relax.

Jelly would probably be around later for a game of checkers, so in the meantime, Johnny read the newspaper from Boston that Scott's grandfather has sent him in a package that arrived the prior week. Most of it was boring and inconsequential, and before long he was sound asleep.

Monday, December 5, 1870:

Denver -

Scott sat his cup of coffee down on the table, looking across the table at Teresa. He could tell from the dark circles under her eyes that the young woman had not slept well the night before, and who could blame her. The young man felt sorry for his honorary sister, she did not get away from the ranch all that often, and to have such a prime opportunity ruined at the hands of greedy cowards made him just plain angry.

"You'll need some money for clothes," Murdoch commented. He handed his son some bills. "As soon as we're done here, I'll head over and send the telegram to Johnny to let him know that we'll be returning sooner than expected."

"Fine," Scott acknowledged, putting the money in his pocket. "Do you want to meet back here for lunch?"

"I have some business I need to take care of," Murdoch explained, glancing at his young ward. "Why don't you and Teresa spend the day exploring Denver. You should have enough money between what I gave you and what you brought to buy lunch."

Scott looked down quickly. He nervously picked up his fork and took another bite of his scrambled eggs. The Harvard graduate prided himself on always acting responsibly, but leaving his wallet in his hotel room and been plain foolish. Thoughts of what Johnny would have said had he been there made him smile. Despite being a former gunfighter, Johnny was always telling Scott that he was too trusting. In this instance, his younger brother would have been correct.

"I'm ready when you are," Teresa said, breaking the silence that hung over the table.

"Let's go then." Scott stood up, pulling out her chair he sighed in relief. You could have cut the tension at the table with a knife. "We'll see you later, Murdoch?"

"I'll meet you two here at five o'clock," Murdoch informed them. "We can go over the meetings for tomorrow while we eat dinner."

"Fine," Scott agreed.

Murdoch watched them until they walked out the door. He drank the last of the coffee in his cup. Grabbing his coat off the chair next to him, he paid his bill and headed towards the telegraph office.


"There are so many shops," Teresa exclaimed, her eyes bright with excitement for the first time that day. "I don't know which one to go into first."

Scott groaned inwardly. The young woman was known for spending hours in the one store they had back in Morro Coyo. He would be lucky if they managed to get back to the hotel in time to meet Murdoch. "There's a dress shop," Scott suggested, pointing across the street to a store with a dress on display in the window. "Why don't we start there?"

"What a beautiful dress," Teresa sighed.

Scott could tell she was thinking it would have been perfect for the party at Murdoch's friends on Wednesday night, if they had not been robbed and forced to leave earlier than expected. "Maybe this store is a bit too fancy," He steered her away from the window towards a store that looked to carry more casual clothing; Scott hoped it would carry clothes for both men and women.

He opened the door for his sister and stepped in behind her, groaning out loud as he saw it was filled with women's things - and only women's things. "Ah...maybe I'll wait outside."

"Chicken," Teresa laughed as Scott handed her some bills to pay for her purchases.

Scott leaned against the building and looked up the street at a couple men going into a saloon. He had a sudden urge for a cold beer and a hand of cards, something he would have been doing with his brother right now if Johnny had been allowed to come. A couple of pretty saloon girls walked past him, and Scott smiled, keeping them in his sights they crossed the road and entered a bar just down the street. Grinning, he hoped that after dinner that night he would be able to slip away and spend some time getting to know one of them.

"I'm all set," Teresa announced as she came out of the store. She handed him the money that was left.

"You didn't spend very much," Scott frowned, taking her packages. "Are you sure you got everything you needed?"

"Yes," Teresa assured him. "Now, let's find a store for you."


Scott and Teresa walked through the park, stopping to sit on a bench. The air was brisk but the sky was clear which made sitting in the sun more enjoyable. They had spent the afternoon, walking along the river, pausing for a time to watch a grizzled old man panning for gold, and were ready for a break before heading back to meet Murdoch.

"I'm sorry we have to cut our trip short," Scott consoled. "I know how much you were looking forward to this trip.

"It's okay, Scott." Teresa smiled, trying to put on a brave front. "It's not your fault we were robbed."

"I know," Scott admitted. "But I can't help somehow feeling that I should be able to fix it so we can stay."

"That's because you're used to fixing things for everyone," Teresa explained. "And you're very good at it, too. If it wasn't for you, Johnny would have left Lancer a long time ago."

"No, he would have worked things out with Murdoch," Scott disagreed. "All I really do is listen to them."

"No, you do much more than that," Teresa said sincerely. "You stand up for Johnny. I don't think you realize how much that means to him. Unlike you, and even me, Johnny has had to fight Murdoch every step of the way to make a place for himself in this family."

"That's because they are too much alike," Scott acknowledged. "Murdoch doesn't want to give an inch and Johnny won't back down either. Sometimes I feel like I'm the parent."

"You're a peacemaker, Scott." Teresa smiled. "I wonder where you get that from?"

"I like to think I was born that way," Scott said quietly. "I spent my life in Boston doing whatever it took to make my grandfather happy. I succeeded, too, until I defied him and joined the war effort. That changed things between us."

"I'm sure your grandfather loves you," Teresa murmured.

"Yes, I know he does," Scott confirmed. "But his type of love is conditional; as long as I am doing whatever he wants me to do, I am a good grandson. When I do what I want to do, then I'm being disrespectful and unappreciative."

"Maybe he's just afraid of losing you. Of being alone in his old age."

For Scott, nothing could have sounded more absurd. "I can assure you that my grandfather isn't afraid of anything. He just can't handle not being in control. For too many years I let him have his way, so much so, that now it's hard for him to realize he can't push me around anymore."

Scott stood up as the conversation became a bit too uncomfortable. He checked his pocket watch, and cringed when he saw the time. "We better head back to the hotel, it's already past five. Murdoch is going to be livid."


Murdoch sat at a table in the dining room, scowling at his son as he escorted Teresa to the table. "You're an hour late," he growled.

"I'm sorry, Sir," Scott apologized as he sat down across from his father. "After we purchased our clothes, we spent some time looking around and we lost track of time."

"The scenery is breathtaking, Murdoch," Teresa interrupted her guardian.

Scott smiled at her attempt to change the subject. One thing his father hated was for anyone to be late for dinner.

"I'm sure it was," Murdoch agreed. He looked up at the waiter as he approached the table. "Shall we order? I'm starved."

Murdoch and Scott were deep in a conversation over tomorrow's meetings when a man walked up to the table and slapped the older man on the back. "Murdoch! You made it," the dark-haired man spoke loud enough for half the restaurant to hear him.

"Ted!" Murdoch exclaimed. He shook the man's hand. "Have a seat." The rancher turned to his son. "Scott, I want you to meet Ted Crosby. He owns a ranch near Stockton. Ted, this is my oldest son, Scott."

"Nice to meet you, Sir." Scott shook the man's outstretched hand. If he didn't know better, he would think the man was Murdoch's brother. They were very similar in appearance, both very tall, with graying hair, and the same weathered appearance that spoke of many long years out on the range and worrying about cattle. Their eyes were even the same deep shade of blue.

Ted sat down between Teresa and Scott. "I thought I wasn't gonna' make it," the Stockton rancher explained. "There's an ice storm coming through west of here. My train barely made it through, and even then, some of the tracks were pretty bad."

"I hope it clears up so we can leave Wednesday," Scott remarked, worried by the thought of their departure being delayed.

"I'm sure we'll be fine, Scott," Murdoch dismissed his son's concerns. "In this part of the country the weather can change in a blink of an eye. By tomorrow no one will even remember that there was a storm."

Scott hoped his father was right. The young Lancer was feeling homesick, and added to that, he did not have much money left after purchasing new clothing and necessities. He was hoping to get back to Lancer without Murdoch ever finding out how irresponsible he had been, but the long they were trapped in Denver, the more likely it was that he would have to confess his costly error in judgment.


Lancer -

"Sorry, Johnny, but them's Jelly's orders."

Frank's unexpected explanation only served to stoke the fire of Johnny's ire. "Jelly's orders? What about my orders? Last I heard this ranch was called 'Lancer', not 'Jellyland'."

From behind him came a rather indignant reply. "Not that Jellyland wouldn't be a right nice name fer a spread somewheres, but I promised Murdoch I'd keep ya outta trouble, and that's what I aim ta do."

With his jaw clenched tightly, Johnny turned slowly to face the family friend who was coming very close to becoming a former family friend. "Where's Barranca?" he ground out in a low menacing tone.

Jelly pulled at his suspenders and puffed his chest out. "I had the boys take 'im out ta the bottom pasture 'fore you got up this mornin'. I'd say he's grazin' high on the hog 'bout now." The suspenders slapped noisily against his chest as he released them and smiled like a cat that had just snuck the cream out from under a very watchful old maid.

"Why'd you do a dang fool thing like that?" Johnny demanded.

"Ta keep you from doin' a dang fool thing like what youse about ta do!"

"You've gone plumb loco," Johnny snapped. "I was going to ride out to check on the herd, and on the way back, then I planned to stop by that dry creek bed to make sure it's still dry before we try to move the herd to the winter pasture next week. Now what part of any of that is danged foolish?"

A whiskered chin jutted forward. "The part that says you'd jes be repeatin' what Frank'n Lester'd already been doin'."

"I already gave Frank and Lester their orders for the day," Johnny turned his head and gave a piercing glare in Frank's direction. The wrangler was still standing beside Barranca's empty stall looking slightly nervous. "You're supposed to be out checking that fence line, not stealing my horse."

"Don't look at me, Johnny," Frank argued even as he took a step back, hands up in surrender. "I didn't have nothing to do with taking Barranca. Dan and Carl done that."

"Dan and Carl!" Johnny's head whipped back around, and his eyes narrowed as he glared at Jelly. "They're supposed to be checking out that footbridge up near the lake dam."

Jelly's eyes rolled and he frowned very condescendingly right before he addressed Johnny. "An' I told 'em ta check out that creek bed so's you wouldn't have ta. Don't take two men ta check out that little ol' footbridge, no how. José kin take a look-see without no one holdin' his hand."

"José?! He's supposed to...dang it, Jelly! Is anyone where I told 'em to be?"

"Course they are," Jelly replied indignantly. "The biggest bunch of 'em are out lookin' fer strays, jes like ya said."

"Why? You run out of other things to tell 'em to do?" Johnny deadpanned.

"Ain't no need ta be sassin' me, Boy," Jelly complained with genuine innocence. "I was jes doin' what I promised Murdoch before he left."

"Murdoch asked you to make me crazy?"

"No, he did not, Mr. Smarty Britches. He asked me was ta keep an eye on ya and ta make sure ya wasn't overdoin' it, or doin' somethin' foolish like bein' out in the rain all day. Yer jes now gettin' over that cold. You wanna be laid up again?"

"Rain?! What rain?" Grabbing Jelly by the arm, Johnny forcefully dragged the older man out the barn door and into the middle of the corral. He waved his other arm in the direction of the clear blue sky. "Look! There ain't a cloud in the sky. You wanna tell me exactly how it is supposed to rain?"

Pulling free of Johnny's grasp, Jelly smoothed the imaginary wrinkles out of his sleeve. "There ain't no clouds now, but there's gonna be. I kin feel it in my elbow." Jelly held up his left elbow for Johnny's inspection, as if that would make it more believable to the irate young rancher. "It started achin' on me last night. Always aches right 'fore it rains."

Exasperated to no end, Johnny threw his hands up and paced over to the corral fence. "I can't believe this. I had this whole week planned out. Everything was going to get done just like the Old Man wanted. But not any more. And why?" Facing Jelly with his hands on his hips, Johnny answered his own question. "Because some old fool's achy elbow says it's gonna rain!"

"Now you jes wait a minute, Boy! Who you callin' some old fool?"

Ignoring Jelly's sputters, Johnny stormed back into the barn. "Frank! If you wanna still be working here come sundown, get Charlie saddled up for me, pronto." Johnny's tone left no question that he meant every word, and Frank issued a prompt 'yes, Sir' before making a beeline for Charlemagne's stall.

"Ya cain't take Scott's horse!" Jelly huffed.

"I can and I will." Johnny turned back to Jelly, his gaze as chilling as his voice. "However, Barranca better be back in his stall by the time I get back this evening. If he ain't, you're gonna have more than that elbow hurtin' you."

Jelly's eyes got wide with disbelief and he sputtered after Johnny. "Well, I never!"

*** *** *** ***

It was well past sundown when Johnny finally made it back to the hacienda. He tended to Charlemagne, feeding him and bedding him down for the night with a practiced ease that allowed him to ignore the aches and pains shooting through his backside and down left leg. The only good thing to come out of the day was that Scott would never know that his horse had spooked when they inadvertently stumbled into a showdown between a territorial jackrabbit and hole-jumping gopher, unseating Johnny and landing him on his backside on what had to be the only patch of rocky ground anywhere near the south pasture.

Tired and sore, Johnny walked right by Barranca's stall without even noticing his horse was back, that is until the disgruntled palomino reached out and snagged his jacket sleeve with his teeth just before Johnny moved out of reach. Smiling, Johnny turned and rubbed the gelding's velvety nose. "Missed you, too, fella. Reckon you enjoyed yourself, though."

Barranca eagerly pressed his forehead against Johnny's chest, nearly pushing the man over in the process. "Take it easy, will ya?" he groused affectionately. "'sides, you're gonna get yourself all wet."

It annoyed Johnny to no end that a sudden downpour less than an hour after he had left that morning left him drenched him to the bone. And he was still wet. For some reason a malicious bunch of rain clouds had relentlessly dogged his trail from one end of the ranch to the other. Of course, from the looks of things, not a drop had fallen anywhere near the hacienda.

Johnny couldn't help but feel like he was on the receiving end of some kind of divine conspiracy to keep Jelly's achy elbow's record intact. He didn't figure God would be too interested in protecting someone who had lived the life Johnny had during in his short time on this Earth, but Jelly could probably manage to get a few words into the right ear. The old man might be a bit rough around the edges, but he had a heart of gold and that was sure to count for something.

With one last pat to Barranca's neck, Johnny headed for the door, wishing his bed would be as warm and snuggly as the soft coat beneath his hand. Wishful thinking it was, too, as was the fire that would not be lit in the fireplace, and the warm cider that would not be waiting on a tray held by a little sister who would not be giving him a stare pointed sharp enough to poke a hole right into his empty head.

He had just reached the porch, was within ten or fifteen feet of his save haven, when it happened. ATCHOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Johnny swore under his breath while he checked to make sure his eyeballs were still in place. He was positive that something had rattled around in his head from that sneeze. All he wanted to do was put his head to bed and sleep until spring. His hand was still on the front door latch when the perfect day came to a perfect end.

"Not a rain cloud 'n the sky," a grizzly familiar voice could be heard from behind the courtyard walls. "Guess ol' Charlie musta dumped 'im in the lake, 'cause there sure ain't no other reason for 'im ta be comin' in all wet like that. No, sir, not with that sky plumb empty a rain clouds."

Johnny ignored Jelly's sarcastic taunts and entered the dark hacienda with a resigned sigh and a sniffle. He made a concerted effort to ensure the door was securely latched, then he headed for the stairs. As hungry as he was, he was more tired. His belly would just have to wait until morning.

Tuesday, December 6, 1870:

Denver -

Murdoch sat down on the edge of his bed and pulled his boots on. The California rancher sighed at the day ahead of him. The morning was pretty clear, but they had to meet with a couple other ranchers, one of them being Ted Crosby, for lunch. After that, they had an afternoon filled with meetings.

As he finished dressing, Murdoch wondered how Johnny was doing back home. He had every confidence that his younger son could handle the ranch; it was that persistent cold he kept his paternal nerves on edge. Johnny had a tendency to ignore his health, especially when it came to keeping his word or living up to his responsibilities. Some relief was found in knowing that Jelly had strict instructions to keep an eye out for his son. The handy man would take that job seriously; Johnny was like one of Jelly's boys, and the older man would fight tooth and nail, even resort to trickery, to keep Johnny from doing anything foolish.

"Murdoch?" He heard the soft voice of his older son, followed by gentle knock. "Murdoch, are you awake?"

The rancher got up, walked over and opened the door. "What is it?" He could sense the note of urgency in Scott's voice.

"I just went down to see about breakfast," Scott explained a worried look on his face. "The desk clerk said that the telegraph lines went down yesterday."

"We better go check and see if our wire went through," Murdoch grumbled. The two men walked out of the room, Murdoch grabbed his coat off the rack. "Teresa still sleeping?"

"Yes," Scott confirmed. "She is meeting with the ranchers' wives for lunch today. I left a message with the front desk to send a maid up to wake her in time to meet them. She looked a bit tired yesterday so I thought she could use the extra rest."

"Good thinking," Murdoch agreed. They headed out of the building, towards the telegraph office.


"Can I help you," The telegraph officer asked.

"Yes," Murdoch replied. "I was in here yesterday and sent a telegram to Morro Coyo."

"Ah, yes..." The red-haired man nodded his head, a frown on his face. "I'm afraid it didn't go through."

"Are you sure," Murdoch barked. "I need to know for certain if it got there."

"I'm positive," He reaffirmed. "According to our field operatives, the lines were already down in California before I sent it." He opened the cash box. "I will refund your money, if you wish to send another one, you can come back when the lines are back up. I'm afraid that won't be for quite some time." When Murdoch shook his head, the telegraph officer handed him the money.

"Maybe we can send a telegraph tomorrow evening," Scott suggested. "When the train makes the stop in Cedar Junction on the way home."

"Excuse me," the telegraph clerk interrupted. "I couldn't help but overhearing you. Might wanna' check with the depot before you count on going anywhere. Man came in here earlier an' said the weather's got the rails shut down west of here, from Canada all the way ta Mexico.

"We better head over there and find out," Scott urged his father. If the train was shut down until further notice he was going to have either confess to his father he had left his wallet in the hotel room or hope that he would be able to send a wire to his grandfather. That latter made him cringe; he had just received a substantial amount of money from Harlan for this trip. He would surely want an explanation as to why his grandson required and additional amount.

The two men walked down the street, Scott listened to the sound of their boots on the ground, feeling like he was walking to his execution. It was not that he was afraid of his father, but when Murdoch was angry he tended to go off like a roman candle.


The two men stopped, looking back down the street as Travis MacPherson sprinted toward them.

"I went to your hotel," the sandy-haired man explained breathlessly. "The desk clerk said he thought you headed to the telegraph office."

"We just left there," Murdoch explained. "They said they thought the trains might be shut down. We were just on our way to the depot to find out."

"It is," Travis confirmed. "My driver told me this morning that his cousin was supposed to be leaving for Philadelphia tomorrow, but the train never made it back through the mountains from San Francisco."

"Damn," Murdoch swore, he walked to the end of the sidewalk and looked back at Scott. "How much money do you have left?"

"Ah...well," Scott stumbled over his words. He did not want to have this discussion in front of his father's friend.

"Don't worry about that, Murdoch. I want you all to come and stay at my house," Travis offered.

"No, Travis," Murdoch shook his head. "We couldn't possibly impose on you like that."

"Murdoch Lancer," his old friend declared loudly, his hands on his hips. "You are a friend, not a stranger. How many times have you helped me out over the years?"

"I know, Travis, but-" Murdoch began.

"But nothing," Travis persisted. "I have plenty of room now that my children are grown and on their own with families of their own. You have no reason to refuse my offer, except pure stubbornness, and you know it."

"All right," Murdoch gave in. He turned to Scott. "Do you think you can get a refund from the hotel for the remainder of the week?"

"I'm certain of it," Scott assured him. "Especially considering the circumstances."

Murdoch nodded, turning back to his friend. "I can't thank you enough, Travis."

"Think nothing of it." Murdoch's words were waved off with a pleased smile. "I'm looking forward to the company." With a wink towards Scott, Travis added, "Besides, I have plenty more stories to tell Scott from your days in Boston."

"Travis," Murdoch groaned good-naturedly. "I think he's heard enough."

"I'm looking forward to it, Sir," Scott grinned. It would be great to have a few stories about their father to share with Johnny when he returned home.

"Why don't you head back to the hotel and get your things?" Travis suggested. "I'll send my driver to pick you up later."

"We have meetings until about four o'clock," Murdoch informed his friend. "Would four thirty be okay?"

"Perfect. I'll head home now and make the arrangements." Travis departed down the road towards his home.

"He is a good friend, Murdoch," Scott commented quietly.

"If it wasn't for him," Murdoch admitted, "I would have gone back to Inverness long before I had a chance to meet your mother. He convinced me to stay, and for that I will always be grateful."

They stopped as a carriage went by, before they crossed the street. "One of us should go to the depot and find out if they have an estimate of when the train might be able to leave," Murdoch said as he peered up at the low clouds blanketing the sky above them.

"I'll go," Scott offered quickly. Murdoch raised his eyebrows at his son's exuberance. "We've been doing a lot of walking, it can't be good on your back," the younger Lancer explained.

"That train ride played havoc with my back," Murdoch confessed.

"I'll be back shortly," Scott said and headed back towards the depot. He had every intention on checking into how long it would be before they could leave Denver, but first he needed to send a telegram to his grandfather. The decision was made; Scott would much rather ask Harlan for money than tell Murdoch what had happened.


Teresa sat holding a teacup, smiling when an elderly woman sat down next to her. She was a well-rounded woman with blond hair and a little too much makeup for the young woman's taste. She had been at the party for over an hour and was feeling a bit out of place, not knowing anyone, and being the youngest one there.

"You're Teresa O'Brien," The gray-haired woman smiled in return. "I remember you from when you were a little girl!"

"I'm sorry," Teresa apologized. "I don't remember you."

"Forgive me, I used to live in Morro Coyo," she explained. "My name is Rose Fitzgerald. I was a seamstress there for about five years."

"Did you know my mother?" Teresa asked anxiously. She always wanted to ask her late father and Murdoch about Angel, but was afraid she would upset them.

"I'm sorry," Rose said sadly. "I never met you mother, though, I'm afraid that at the time I only had eyes for Murdoch Lancer."

"You and Murdoch courted!" Teresa sat up, interested in learning something about her guardian's younger days.

"I wouldn't exactly call it courting," Rose frowned good-naturedly. "The man never even knew I was there. It was rather insulting."

"I see. He was interested in someone else." Teresa sympathized.

"Yes, he was," the elderly woman smiled. "Those cows of his. His whole life centered around one thing, and that was making something of that ranch."

"He succeeded," Teresa said proudly. "Lancer is the biggest ranch in the area." She looked up in time to see Scott enter the room, his hat in his hand. He walked towards her, his face colored from the daring stares coming from the younger women in the room.

"Teresa," Scott greeted her. "Murdoch sent me to pick you up."

"So, this is what the ranch hands look like in California now," Rose's eyes sparkled with mischief. "Is he yours?" she asked Teresa.

"No!" Teresa said emphatically. "Scott is like a brother to me."

"It's nice to meet you, Scott," Rose flirted outrageously.

"Ma'am." Scott smiled politely, his hands giving away his nerves as he fidgeted with his hat.

"Scott is Murdoch's oldest son," Teresa offered, smiling at her brother's discomfort. It was not often she saw the blond-haired Lancer nervous.

"No wonder he's so good looking," Rose declared. "You're a chip off the old block."

"We better be going," Scott said quickly. "We're going to be staying at Mr. MacPherson's house for a few days."

"Why?" Teresa asked.

"I'll let Murdoch explain," Scott returned, turning to the elderly woman. "It was nice to meet you, ma'am." He took Teresa's arm and they left the room. "You enjoyed that way too much."

The young woman broke out in a laugh as they headed for their room.


Scott lay in bed at the MacPherson home, unable to sleep. It was ironic that he had insomnia when he felt more comfortable there than he had at the hotel. Murdoch's friend was a gracious host, and he made the Lancers feel as if his home was theirs. The dinner had been excellent, and was followed by an after dinner brandy, which had made the evening complete. Rolling onto his side, Scott stared out the window at the moon, shining so clear and bright in the nearly cloudless sky.

Most of the day had gone without a hitch. The meetings were very informative and he had met a lot of influential ranchers. Upon returning to the hotel, the manager and Scott had come to an agreement, which had left some money in the young man's pocket, but not nearly what his father would expect him to have. Scott hoped that by tomorrow he would have an answer from his grandfather and some idea of when the train would be able to take them back to California. The attendant at the depot had explained that with the wires down, the railroad had dispatched scouts to bring word of the condition of the tracks further into the mountains.

He tossed and turned for the next hour, knowing in his heart that muddled finances were not the cause of his restlessness - he was homesick, for the ranch and for his brother. It was funny that when the young rancher had left Morro Coyo to come here a few days ago he was excited about being in a big city, but now all he wanted was to go home and ride the open range with Johnny. Scott yawned, his eyes flickered shut and he smiled as he fell asleep, dreaming of a land far away - the most the most beautiful place in the whole wide world.


Lancer -

Pulling the wagon to a stop in front of the general store, Johnny very stiffly got out of the seat and lowered himself to the ground. His left hip and leg protested the movement, but he stifled the groan that tried to slip free.

Even though his body ached from the tumble off Charlemagne, he was still thankful that the rain had not been enough to spark his cold back to life. He had expected to wake up barely able to breath again, and had been pleasantly surprised when that had not been the case. Content in that thought, he stepped up on the boardwalk, only to stop when he heard someone calling his name from across the street.

"Johnny Lancer!" As soon as Johnny turned around, Evan yelled out, "Come by the office before you head back to the ranch. There's a telegram for you, and some mail, too."
With a nod, Johnny tipped his finger in the other man's direction. "Will do, Evan. Be over just as soon as I get these supplies loaded."

They middle-aged man nodded, before disappearing through the doors of the hotel where his wife was the desk clerk. Johnny resumed his previous course and entered the general store, list in hand.

"Señor Lancer," Mrs. Baldermero greeted him with her usual exuberance, which included a pinch to his cheek.

"Now, Señora, you know I'm just plain Johnny," Johnny teased. "Señor Lancer is my father. You know, bigger'n me and mucho loud."

The shopkeeper's wife slapped him gently on the arm. "You are Señor Lancer, too. Though not so loud as your padre."

Johnny laughed as she grinned and walked behind the counter. Murdoch's temper was no secret; in fact, most people knew about it long before Johnny had ever experienced the roof-raising bellows. During his first few months at the ranch, it seemed to Johnny that his father had been worked very diligently to make up for the lost time. Things had settled down lately, though, and there had been less arguing and more discussing between father and son.

"Señor Juanito," Señor Baldermero entered through the door to the store's stock room.

Although he had refused to drop the respectful title of 'señor', the older man at least called Johnny by his first name, for which Johnny was grateful. "Señor Baldermero," Johnny nodded his respect. "Had to come drop off a wagon wheel over at the blacksmith, so I thought I'd come by see if them supplies that wasn't on the freight wagon last month had come in."

"Sí," the shopkeeper nodded. "The supplies came in yesterday morning. I will get them for you."

Having lost the formality of customer to shopkeeper months before, Johnny followed the older man back into the stock room to help. The Baldermero's had treated Johnny with only warmth and caring since Scott had first introduced him to the Mexican couple a couple of weeks after Johnny had recovered from the bullet wound he got during the gun battle with Pardee.

Mrs. Baldermero handed Johnny several items wrapped in brown paper, and a piece of the hard candy Johnny liked so much. "These are for Señorita Teresa," she said as he popped the candy into his mouth.

"Gracias, Señor." Johnny thanked her with both words and an affectionate kiss on the cheek. "Now, if you can call Teresa 'Teresa', then why can't you drop that 'Lancer' bit for me?"

As usual, the older woman scolded him with a sigh. "You are different. You are an owner of a grande estancia. It would be disrespectful."

Johnny threw the packages in the back of the buckboard. This was an argument he and the shopkeeper's wife had quite often, and he always lost. It still amused him though when he came to town with Murdoch and Scott that she would address them all as 'Señor Lancer'; none of them was ever sure who should answer, so they usually all did.

*** *** *** ***


"What in tarnation ya yellin' fer? I ain't deef, ya know."

"Sorry, Jelly," Johnny apologized. "I figured you was out in the barn."

Jelly rolled his eyes and put down the feather duster he had been using to keep the dust from getting too thick while Teresa was gone. "Then why'r ya yellin' fer me in the house?"

Unwilling to admit that this made no sense to him, either, Johnny shifted the fault to something else. "Guess that concoction you've been force feeding me has made me a bit daft." With a grimace, he added, "What did you put in that stuff, anyway. Turpentine?"

With his nose in the air and a slight roll of his shoulders, Jelly took the bait. "How'd ya guess? Figure if a man can survive drinkin' that, there ain't nothin' kin keep him down fer long. I ain't heard you sneezin' like ya was before, so I guess ya kin start thankin' me any time, now."

"Thank you," Johnny said dutifully, but with no conviction. "When I was in town, Evan gave me a telegram for you."

This news startled the older man. "A telegram? Fer me?"

"Yep, that's what the envelope says. Jellifer B. Hoskins."

Jelly tore open the telegram while Johnny sifted through the rest of the mail. As he suspected, most of it was for Murdoch. He had pulled out a couple of pieces that might need attention before Murdoch returned, but before he could read any of them he noticed the deep frown on Jelly's face.

"Bad news, Jelly?"

Jelly nodded, but did not look up from the paper. "It's my sister. Says here she's sick."

"Sister?" For the life of him Johnny could not remember Jelly ever talking about having any family, other than the orphans he was taking care of when he first arrived at Lancer.

"Says here she ain't expected ta live much longer, an' that if I wanna see her 'fore she passes on, I'd best get a movin'."

That was sicker than what Johnny had been thinking Jelly meant, and the whys and wherefore's of everything else evaporated into thin air. "Then what are you standing here talking to me for?" he asked softly.

Jelly looked up. "I cain't leave now. Not with everyone gone."

"In case you ain't noticed, everyone isn't gone. I'm still here," Johnny argued with compassion.

The older man looked at him and groaned. "Yeah, and yer sick, too."

This time Johnny groaned. "I ain't sick, Jelly. You just got through saying how good that tonic of yours was working. Besides, I've had lots worse than a run nose, before." Tactically changing the subject, he asked, "Where's your sister live?"

"Oregon. Heard last month they was gonna open a new railroad spur headin' up thaterway. Was thinkin' 'bout goin' ta see her, after spring roundup an' all."

"I guess you'll be making that trip sooner."

"Johnny, I ain't gonna run out on ya," Jelly protested.

"You ain't running out on me, Jelly. I'm telling you to go." Johnny appreciated his friend's concern, but it was not necessary. "If you don't go now, you might not ever see your sister again. She needs you more than I do. Besides, Murdoch and Scott and Teresa'll be back in a couple of days."

Jelly hedged, his eyes darting back and forth from the telegram to Johnny. "Well, I guess I could, seein' as how you'll-

"I'll be fine and dandy," Johnny finished for him. "Now go get packed and try to rest up. I'll take you into town to catch the stage first thing in the morning."

"'fore I leave, I'll be sure an' mix up another batch of my special brew fer that cold a yers," Jelly said as he headed for the door. "In case ya have one a them relapses 'cause ya spent yesterday ridin' around in the rain instead a listenin' ta my elbow. Stubborn fools, all of ya Lancers."

Despite the grumbling, Jelly's rather easy capitulation told Johnny that the old man was more upset about his sister than he was letting on. Johnny felt a sudden chill he as his mind considered the unacceptable possibility of something happening to Scott. Realistically, the ex-gunfighter knew all too well that death had a habit of creeping up on a person, unsuspecting like, but in his heart Johnny desperately hoped that it would be a long time coming for anyone in his family.

Wednesday, December 7, 1870:

Denver -

To all those that were present, Scott Lancer looked as if he were listening intently to the rancher from Colorado describing his ranching operation. In truth, the young man's thoughts were far away from the conference room and everyone in it.

First thing that morning, he had gone to the telegraph office, only to find out that his grandfather had sent him a wire questioning why his grandson needed extra funds. Scott had debated on what to tell him, and finally settled for a simple explanation. His reply stated only that he did not have sufficient money to secure an acceptable place to reside while in Denver. Scott felt a bit guilty about misleading his grandfather, but he had not lied; it was true, he did not have enough money for the hotel.

What rankled the young man more than anything was that he had to justify his request in the first place. The funds he was using were his, set aside by his grandmother for him when he was just a baby. She had passed away a few months later. Unfortunately, she had stipulated that her husband regulate the funds in the trust until Scott reached the age of thirty.

Accepting that there was no point in brooding over that could not be changed, Scott sighed and tried to concentrate on what was going on around him. How long could this meeting possibly continue? While the blond-haired man enjoyed ranching, loved being outdoors, and felt more alive because of the hard work that was demanded of him as a partner in such a large operation, there was only so much he needed to hear in a day about cows.

Truth be known, the he thought that bovines were some of the dumbest animals ever created. The young rancher looked at his father who seemed enamored with the topic and grinned slightly. It would not surprise him to find out Murdoch had a name for each head of beef back at Lancer. The older man lived and breathed cattle, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.

Not too long ago, Johnny had brought up the idea of raising horses as a side business. Scott had been interested and thought it was an excellent idea. The problem was that Murdoch was totally against it. He called the tune so that was the end of that.

The blond-haired man frowned at that thought. He knew that both he and Johnny had agreed to the stipulation that Murdoch would have the final say when it came to the ranch business, but at some point there would have to be a change in that agreement. Scott did not mind following orders, however, as a partner he wanted to be able to make some of the decisions; one of those decisions would be to branch out into other things. Having all one's eggs in one basket went against everything he had learned at Harvard, and even from his grandfather.

Scott once again pulled himself back to the present when he heard his father mention his name. Murdoch was singing the praises of his two sons who had recently come home to help with the ranch. Like any proud father, he was telling his friends how his older son had graduated from Harvard and was quite an asset when it came to the books and management.

Then, to Scott's surprise, his father went on to tell them how efficient his younger son, Johnny, was at delegating work to the hands, that he knew within a short time which hands were best to do which jobs, and that, despite his youth, the men showed him the respect that was due any man in charge. Murdoch ended with a firm show of his own respect; when Johnny was in charge of a job it would be done on time and right.

Scott wished his brother was with them, though this time it was for an entirely different reason. Johnny needed to hear what his father had said about him. Too often, Murdoch came down on Johnny very hard for anything done wrong, without giving him the same level of praise when it was done right.

A few minutes later, the meeting broke up with the President of the Colorado Cattle Association reminding them that the next gathering would be held in California, and that Murdoch Lancer, as acting President of the California Cattle Growers Association, had volunteered to plan the conference.

"We need to go to the depot," Murdoch informed his son as they walked out of the building. "I want to find out if they know anything about the train schedules."

"Travis is having that dance tonight," Scott reminded him. "And I have a couple errands to run. Why don't I meet you back at the house?"

"We have to be careful with our money, Scott," Murdoch warned him. "If that storm did as much damage as we were led to believe, then there is no telling how long we'll be stuck here."

"There's no denying that, Sir, but this is Teresa's first trip away from the ranch in over two years, and our first trip as a family," Scott elaborated. "She works hard at the ranch and seldom asks for anything. I hardly think it would bankrupt us if we were to try to make the most of a bad situation."

"You're right, Son," Murdoch conceded. "Just be careful how much you spend."

Scott nodded, stifling the urge to remind his father that he was still the same business-minded Harvard graduate that had deserved Murdoch's praises less than an hour ago. He was still irritated by his grandfather's required explanation for the additional funds, but he refused to let that make an issue between himself and his father.

Earlier in the day, when he had gone to find out about the telegram to his grandfather, he had stopped in at the little shop that he and Teresa had been by the day before. He inquired about the dress he and Teresa had seen in the window, and as luck would have it, the dress was the perfect size for his sister. He had paid for it, with the promise to come back that afternoon to pick it up.

The dress was a bit expensive, considering the small amount of money he had left, but Scott did not need to purchase an evening suit for the party. Fortunately, he had been wearing his best suit when the rest of their things had been stolen. Teresa had worn a very pretty dress that day, but it was different for ladies. She should have a different dress for the party, and he was not going to let her down to save a few dollars.


With his errands complete, Scott entered the MacPherson house. He set his package on the small table, and took off his jacket and hung it on the coat rack.

"Scott," Teresa greeted him. "Murdoch came in just a head of you."

"What did he find out about the train?" Scott asked.

"There has been no word since yesterday," Teresa explained. "But the scouts the railroad sent out did not come back today. They are hoping for to get word sometime tomorrow."

Scott picked up his package and turned to the young woman. "I bought something for you." He handed the bag to her.

"You shouldn't have," she exclaimed. "We don't-"

"Consider it an early Christmas present," Scott said quietly. Teresa smiled nervously looking at the gift in her hands, wrapped in brown paper. "Well go ahead and open it," he urged her.

Teresa carefully pulled the paper open, a stunned look on her face at what it contained. "Scott!" she whispered. "You really shouldn't have, this must have cost-"

"Don't worry about it," Scott interrupted, a smile on his face. "I know how much you wanted to go to the dance tonight and that dress will look beautiful on you."

"Thank you!" she reached up, kissing his cheek. "I'm so excited!"

Scott watched her as she hurried up the stairs. Teresa was going to make someone a lucky man someday.


Murdoch and Scott stood by the punch bowl as they watched Teresa dance with yet another young man.

"Teresa is having the time of her life," Murdoch commented as the young couple danced by. The patriarch had not seen his ward that happy since before Day Pardee had murdered her father.

"It will be a night she won't forget for a long time," Scott agreed. He looked across the room and his eyes fell upon a pretty young woman, standing at the edge of the dance floor. "Excuse me, I think I'll join the fun."

Murdoch watched his son walk away. It felt good to have him home at Lancer where he belonged. The rancher had spent so many years making land and cattle his only family that he did not realize what he had lost until Johnny and Scott had come home. The hacienda was now filled with laughter; he had someone to share the ranch with. His sons were home, and would someday accept the legacy and carry on in the Lancer tradition.

He wondered for a brief moment if the brothers would be able to handle being equal partners, without a third party to have the final say, but he shook off those dark thoughts as totally unfounded. Scott and Johnny were raised in two different worlds, were two different people in attitude and thought, but what they both shared was a willingness to compromise, especially with each other. No matter what happened in the future, his sons would take care of each other, respect each other, and find a way to meet halfway when it came to running Lancer.


Lancer -

Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt as they reached the crest of the steep mountain path. With eyes all too accustomed to taking in every tiny detail, he surveyed the devastation that was laid out before them. For a brief moment he was unable to think of anything. The site of the mangled remains of wood and metal was enough to have his stomach knotted in a painful mass - somewhere under all that debris were the bodies of people who had not expected to die that day.

"Dios," he breathed.

Val had showed up in the wee hours of the morning with the request for able-bodied men to help with a train derailment. A US Marshal had sent word to all the towns to the west within fifty miles, requesting men, supplies, and doctors because everything to the east was cut off by downed telegraph lines and icy mountain passes.

A group of fifty-eight men had headed out within an hour, leaving behind only a bare crew to work the most pressing jobs at the ranch. Jelly had been torn on what to do, but Johnny insisted that he go on to Oregon to be with his sister. Any man could help with the train, but only Jelly could do his sister any good. Jelly rode with Val back to town, while Johnny and the rest of the volunteers headed towards the disaster site.

It had taken the men from Lancer over half the day to get there. When they arrived, there was about that many men already scattered up the mountainside already working hard to save anyone that had survived the crash. The first winter storm of the season had plowed the mountains east of the ranch during the middle of the night. The combination of the ice and snow and the westbound train had been too much for the lumber braces. They had snapped under the weight, sending the train and it passengers plummeting into the river below.

Train cars, crumbled trestle, and twisted railroad ties littered the landscape from the top of the ravine all the way down into the frigid waters of the icy river. Back when he was still running the border, Johnny had seen a train jump the tracks somewhere in south Texas. He thought he had an idea of what they would find, only now he was seeing that his ideas fell far short of the reality.

"How many men you got with you, Boy?"

Johnny's head jerked up to see a man walking towards him. The tin star pinned to the man's chest glistened in the afternoon sun. "Name's Lancer," Johnny replied. "There's about sixty of us."

The man looked bone tired as he nodded, but he kept his eyes focused intently on Johnny. "Lancer? You one of them Lancer's from over Morro Coyo way?"

"Yeah. We headed out first thing this morning, after Sheriff Crawford from Green River brought word that you'd sent for help."

The marshal nodded, losing interest in Johnny as he got down to brass tacks. With curt but decisive orders, he instructed the men on where they were needed most. He told them who was in charge at the various points of the rescue operation, and made it clear that they were to take orders only from those individuals. The worst thing that could happen during a disaster was to lose control of the rescuers.

*** *** *** ***

Tired and sore and more than a little unnerved by some of what he had seen, Johnny sat down on a salvaged railroad tie that had been turned into a makeshift bench. The roaring bonfire helped to chase away the chill from the frigid night air, and the beans were not the worst he had ever eaten, though he had to force himself to ingest the morsels of food. His weary body was demanding sustenance, while his queasy stomach was rebelling against the invasion. He hoped he would never again have to face the grotesque sites he and seen today.

"How'r the beans?" Without waiting for an invitation, the marshal who had greeted them when they arrived sat down on the displaced tie next to Johnny.

"Had worse," Johnny stated with little conviction.

"At least you're smart enough to be eating 'em," the lawman sighed. With his fork, he gestured towards a huddle of men on the other side of the fire. They were talking among themselves, and there was not one plate between them. "Those fools are gonna be wishing they had come morning."

Johnny stirred the beans around on his plate. Flashes of the mangled bodies he had drug out of the river made his stomach churn. "Ain't fools. Just ain't no point in eatin' if it ain't gonna stay down."

The lawman sighed again. "Guess not. Takes a strong gut to see what they've seen today and still be able to stomach eating. Still, they ain't gonna be no good tomorrow if they're too weak to work. There might be more survivors buried under that mess." Using his fork as a pointer again, he indicated Johnny's half-eaten dinner. "You understand that, don't you, Boy?"

"Yeah, I understand plenty," Johnny agreed. Too many times his belly had screamed for food when there was none to be had. And yes, he knew the value of not allowing his body to become too weak to put up a proper defense. One never knew when things would go from bad to worse and taking that chance could make worse a living hell.

"How many have been found?" Johnny didn't bother to specify what he knew the marshal would already know.

"Fifty-seven. Don't know exactly how many were on board, but there coulda been as many as one hundred." The marshal's grim countenance got grimmer. "Only found five alive, so far."

"Damn," Johnny cursed.

A silence settled between them, broken only by the constant popping of the fire, and the occasional sound of a cough, or a stomach rebelling against food.

"How long's it been since you quit being Johnny Madrid?"

Startled, Johnny looked over at the other man, but the marshal was staring intently into the fire in front of them. "A few months," he answered cautiously. "And I'm still Johnny Madrid, when I need to be," Johnny added as a warning.

The marshal's head bobbed a few times, but he continued staring into the dancing flames. "Good."

That single word sent a shiver down Johnny's spine. The marshal had known who he was before he sat down, so it was unlikely that he was concerned about having a gunfighter in the mix. That left only one possibility. "What kind of trouble you expecting?"

For the first time since he sat down, the marshal looked over at Johnny. "The greedy kind," he said softly.

"Metal or paper?"


Johnny sighed. There was gold and greenbacks in the rubble, and it had to be quite a bit to have the marshal worried about trouble showing up. Glancing over at the crowd of workers on the other side of the campsite, he wondered if maybe it wasn't already there.

"Things get bad, can I count on your gun?" the marshal finally got to the point.

"Yeah," Johnny answered soberly. "If there's trouble, Lancer'll back you."

The marshal nodded again. He stood up, but did not move away. After a minute, he said quietly, "Rumor is that you got yerself killed in Mexico back in the spring."

That was one rumor that Johnny was more than happy was only a rumor. Sometimes he still lay awake at nights, pondering just how close he had been to taking his final breath, and wondering at the irony that the man who had saved him from that fate was the man Johnny had hated for most of his life.

"Didn't like hearing that one. Glad to know it ain't true."

Johnny watched the marshal as he walked away. He couldn't imagine a lawman caring one way or the other about whether or not a gunhawk got caught on the wrong end of a gun or not, unless that lawman was a friend. Try as he might, though, Johnny could not remember ever crossing paths with that particular marshal.

"Johnny." Frank sat down in the spot recently vacated by the marshal.


"Marshal givin' you trouble?" the Negro man asked before taking a drink from the steaming cup held tight in both hands.

A smile tugged at Johnny's lips. With Scott in Denver, it was nice knowing there was someone he could count on to watch his back. "Nope. Could be some trouble, though. If it comes, Lancer'll stand by the marshal."

After a moment, Frank nodded.

The crackling of the fire and the occasional clink of Johnny's fork against the tin plate as Johnny finished off the last of his dinner was the only sound that broke the silence between the two friends.

"About ready to get back to it?" Johnny asked as he stood up and stretched.

Frank stood too, but kept his back to the carnage just beyond the small clearing the marshal had used to set up the base camp. "Ain't seen nothing like this since the war."

In the glow of the fire, Johnny studied Frank's face and wondered at the sorrow he saw in the haggard expression. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Frank nodded.

"Let's go." Without looking back, Johnny headed for the makeshift chuck wagon to dispose of his empty plate. He had taken an hour to eat and rest, and now it was time return to the grisly task of digging through the wreckage, desperately clinging to the hope that the next body he uncovered would still be breathing.


Thursday, December 8, 1870:

Denver -

Scott leaned back in the tub, he knew he needed to get dressed and head for the telegraph office but the warm water felt so good he did not feel like getting out yet. The former Bostonian had been used to taking a bath every day back East, but since moving to California he had learned a whole new way of life; coffee was so strong it could jump out of the pot and walk, and baths were had once a week, if you were lucky. The worst, however, had been getting used to wearing the same clothes for more than one day.

The first time he had gone out on the range with Johnny to round up cattle they had to spend the night away from the hacienda. Before leaving, his brother had rather bluntly informed him that he did not need to take a change of clothes; he could manage with what he had on. Scott grinned at the thought. He could only imagine the look of horror that must have been on his face. It became a brotherly joke between them after that; every trip they would go on that required a night out on the range, Scott would find a spare shirt tucked at the top of in his saddlebags. His friends back in Boston would be aghast!

That thought made him remember the dance they attended last night. The blond had seen her while he was dancing, late in the evening, the elusive red-haired beauty with the beautiful green eyes. The young woman smiled, her eyes almost laughing at him, as if this was a game to her. She had worn a Christmas red dress that was a little too revealing for society's rules, but Scott had appreciated the opportunity to gaze at her lovely features. Scott was impatient for the music to finish and when it did, he quickly thanked the young woman who had partnered with him and left the dance floor to look for her, only to find she was nowhere to be found.

Scott sighed, the water was cooling off and he needed to get dressed and head for the telegraph office to see if his grandfather had sent him the requested funds. He smiled as he thought about how much it must have hurt Harlan to withdraw the money from his grandson's trust fund once again. His grandmother had left him a healthy amount of money, but it did not make him rich by any means. Scott knew his grandfather would never understand that the young blond got more happiness out of spending it on others than he would hoarding it for himself.

The water sloshed as Scott stood up, the water running in rivulets down his well-toned body. He reached for the towel he left lying on a chair near the claw foot bathtub. Stepping onto a rug the young rancher wrapped the cloth around his waist and headed towards the clothes he had set out the night before.

Scott jerked around as his door opened and Teresa walked in.

"Do you mind!" Scott bellowed as the young woman stared. "Teresa!" he again yelled at her.

"Oh...ah..." Teresa stuttered, embarrassment washing over her face, she turned and fled from the room.

"Someone needs to teach her to knock!" Scott cried as he walked over and slammed his door. It was not as if no woman had ever seen him improperly attired, but Teresa was like a sister and it was embarrassing for her to see him with so little on. The young rancher quickly donned his newly purchased blue checked shirt with black pants, in case someone else decided to walk into his room unannounced.


The most important meal of the day was breakfast, at least that is what Scott had been brought up to believe, and he smiled with satisfaction as he walked towards the telegraph office. The table had been covered with dishes containing eggs, ham, sausage, bacon, fried potatoes, pancakes and even French toast among others.

The young Lancer grinned as he recalled the look on his father's face as Scott filled his plate a second time. The blond was known for not being a big eater compared to his brother but for some reason, he had been very hungry this morning. It was either that or he had missed eating home cooked meals for the past few days.

He opened the door and stepped inside, quickly walking up to the counter. "Do you have a telegram for Scott Lancer," he asked anxiously.

"Yes I do, sir," The telegraph officer nodded.

Scott took the telegram and slowly read it, a frown settled on his face, quickly turning to anger. "I've just about had it!" He exclaimed out loud.

"Sir?" The officer said puzzled.

"I would like to send an answer back," Scott barked.

"Yes, sir." The attendant picked up a pen and paper. "What would you like it to say?"

"It is my money, stop," Scott said angrily. "Send it now, stop." The young rancher put some bills on the counter, he knew he really should not be using what money he had left to argue with his grandfather but the man really made him crazy at times. He was just too controlling when it came to his grandson's life and the former Bostonian was getting very tired of it.

"I'll send it out right now," the telegraph officer assured him. "Would you like me to send someone with a message if a reply should come in?"

"No," Scott exclaimed. "I'll stop by early tomorrow morning." The last thing he needed was for Murdoch to find out. Between his father and Harlan they both wanted to run his life and if he had them both on his back, he was sure to show them that the calm, cool Scott Lancer they were used to could assuredly lose his temper.


Murdoch walked into the MacPherson home, frustration evident when he practically ripped his coat off and hung it on the rack.

"Train still held up," Travis guessed.

"Yes," Murdoch growled. "Everyday is the same answer, they are not sure when it will be moving again!"

"What are you worrying about?" Travis asked as they walked into the parlor and sat down. "You said Johnny was more than capable of running the ranch."

"He is," the gray-haired man agreed. "But he's been sick and I'm worried about him."

"That's not all of it, my friend," his host replied. "Come on, out with it."

"It's the first time I've left him to run the ranch alone," Murdoch confessed. "As a matter of fact, neither of the boys has ever had independent run of Lancer. What if something happens? If he needs to get a hold of me?"

"Murdoch," Travis remarked. "You've been telling me for three days what fine ranchers both your sons are. What are the chances the first time you go on a trip, a catastrophe will happen?"

"You don't know Scott and Johnny," Murdoch joked, though part of him knew this was the simple truth. "Those two can't go to town to pick up supplies without something happening."

He smiled at his friend. "I trust him, Travis. I really do." The rancher paused, trying to find the right words. "It's just for so long that ranch was the only thing that kept me going. I lost Johnny to Maria and I let Scott stay in Boston to be raised by his grandfather, while I built a legacy for when they were older."

"How do they feel about that?" The Denver businessman asked interestedly.

"Johnny knows I looked for him, but he still harbors some resentment that I didn't try hard enough," Murdoch confessed. "And I have to admit he's probably right. I had already lost Scott. After a while I had to go back or I would have lost everything I had worked for."

"Everything?" Travis questioned, a look of disbelief on his face.

"I hired the Pinkerton Agency to look for him after I went back," Murdoch said defensively. "I had not given up on him, I just couldn't afford to be away from the ranch any longer."

"The truth is you couldn't handle the thought of your little boy being missing out there," the sandy-haired man insinuated. "So you buried yourself in the ranch, using it as a replacement for the children that you missed so much."

"Yes," Murdoch admitted, he turned away, quickly wiping the wetness from his eyes.

"And Scott?" his friend continued. Travis knew Murdoch felt a great burden here and hoped he would be able to help him. "How does he feel?"

"When it comes to Scott, I just can't talk to him." Murdoch felt his frustrations building as they always did when his mind turned to this subject. "I know he wants to know why I left him in Boston, but what can I tell him?"

"The truth," Travis murmured. "Maybe that's all it will take."

"The truth is that at first it was the best thing to do," Murdoch growled. "I was working sunup to sundown just to hang on to the ranch, how could I handle a newborn baby? Scott's grandmother was still alive then and I knew she would take excellent care of her grandson."

"Why didn't you go after him later?" The sandy-haired man inquired. "From the letters you sent me, you've turned it into the best ranch in the area, surely you could have hired someone to watch over him."

"I went to Boston to get him," Murdoch explained. "I left my foreman in charge of Lancer."

"What happened?" Travis urged him to continue.

"Harlan was having a birthday party for Scott," the Californian spit out. "My son's fifth birthday and I had forgotten, some father I was." He stood up and paced the room. Travis did not say a word as his friend continued. "Garrett threatened me with dragging Scott through the courts, I couldn't do that to him. Besides that I did not have the money it would take."

"Not an easy decision for you to make." Travis commiserated. "You did what you thought was best for him at the time."

"Did I?" Murdoch barked. "To this day I have to wonder how Scott ended up the way he did. Harlan has always been a selfish son of a bitch, whereas Scott is always helping those in need. He would give the shirt off his back to help ease someone else's hardships.
"Maybe Scott became who he is in spite of his grandfather," Travis offered. "Children of murderers don't always become one themselves."

"I just thank God everyday Scott and Johnny agreed to come when I sent for them," Murdoch said sincerely. "I may have missed both of their childhoods but we have the future ahead of us now, together."

Travis nodded, the conversation ended as Travis' housekeeper informed them dinner was ready.


Lying in bed later that night, Murdoch's thoughts kept going back to the conversation with Travis from earlier. He wanted so badly to talk with Scott and explain to his son why he's been left in Boston, but every time he tried, he clammed up. Travis had told him that maybe all it would take to remove the barrier between him and his son was the truth.

Perhaps Travis was right. The decision was made then and there; before they left Denver he find the opportunity to have a heart to heart with his elder son. It was more than time.


Lancer -

By mid-day, Johnny was more tired than he could ever remember feeling. He had worked throughout the night, and now the unceasing effort was taking its toll. The nearly full moon made it possible to keep the rescue efforts going, but the biting cold had slowed them all down. It was the deadly winter chill that had them all pushing themselves to the limit.

If it wasn't for the bone-chilling cold, the urgency would not be nearly as unyielding. As it was, anyone who had survived the wreck, would freeze to death if they were not found soon. A few might have died from their injuries, but there would be a greater chance of finding survivors if the weather had been less fierce. Then again, if it had not been for the wintry ice storm, the train trestle not have collapsed in the first place.


Although phrased as a question, the steaming cup exchanged hands with no thought of a refusal. Ignoring the bearer, Johnny took a big gulp of the bitter brew, not caring that it burned his mouth or his insides. The physical pain was almost as much a relief as the warmth. Less than an hour before, he had pulled a small child out of the wreckage. Clamping his eyes tightly shut, he fought back the almost overwhelming wave of nausea.

The child was a little girl. She was about four or five, at least that's what Johnny figured. She had dark brown hair and the prettiest blue-green eyes that stared up at him as if they could see right into his soul. They could not; the beautiful little girl was dead. She wasn't the first dead child he had pulled from the mangled ruins of that particular train car, but she was the one that he could not get out of his head.

With trembling hands he had wrapped her tiny body in a blanket, and carried her with care to the river bank. There had not been a scratch on her, at least none that Johnny could see. Her arms and legs were still attached, which was not the case with all the bodies that had been found in the wreckage. Even her dark green dress had barely been wrinkled as it lay draped over her tiny body. For all the outward appearances, she should not have been dead; but she was.

"How many?" Johnny asked that damnable question for the second time in as many days.

"Seventy-seven." The marshal's response was surprisingly gentle from a voice that had been bellowing orders all through the night. "Up to seventeen alive, though."

A firm hand gripped Johnny's shoulder, causing him to tense. When useless words that could not possibly bring any comfort were not forthcoming, Johnny relaxed. He and the marshal had not talked directly since the prior night when they were eating by the fire, but Johnny still felt a connection to this man. He could not explain it and did not have the strength to put much thought into it. He just accepted it like...

Johnny studied the man's profile. The marshal was not young any more, but he was not old, either, maybe forty or so. He had dark blond hair, darker than Scott's was after months of working in the sun, but close to the color his brother's hair had been when he had first arrived from Boston. High cheekbones were accentuated by a lighter skin tone, but one that had seen more than a few years in the sun and weather. It was the marshal's eyes, though, that brought it all together. They were gray-blue, and in them Johnny could see a world of tolerance and understanding.

Turning back towards the river in front of him, Johnny relaxed even more. Add the integrity and fortitude that Johnny had witnessed during the past day to the general physical resemblance and this man could be Scott in another fifteen or twenty years.

"Ever been to Boston, Marshal?" he asked without preamble.

Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny could see the somewhat startled expression on the older man's face. "No." After a slight hesitation, the marshal asked, "You?"

"Nope?" A sad smile washed over Johnny's tired face. "You remind me a little of someone I know. He grew up in Boston."

"Your brother, Scott?"

The unexpected response ripped away Johnny's calm and set his senses on alert. Pulling away, he stared at the marshal, a hard cold stare that reflected the fear in his heart. "How'd you know about Scott? And Madrid? I don't like being played, Marshal."

The marshal expression remained soft and reflective, despite the chilling threat in Johnny's voice. "I didn't always wear this badge, Son."

Johnny kept his hard stance, his body coiled and ready for whatever threat might come his way, and waited. Patience was something that Johnny Lancer had very little of, but Johnny Madrid considered her to be his most faithful mistress.

"Up until five years ago, I worked for the Pinkerton Agency." The marshal looked over at Johnny and smiled. "I spent four years looking for you." The smile faded. "It was the only case I was still working on when I decided to leave the agency to accept this job. Didn't like letting your father down. You, either."

"Four years?" Johnny asked softly.

"Yeah," came a rather choked reply, then the marshal looked away. "Finding you was my first assignment, and my only failure. I'm sorry, Boy."

"Marshal Canton! We need you over here."

Johnny watched as the marshal walked away, headed for a group of men a little further up stream from where Johnny was standing. It took a few minutes to work through this new information. While Johnny knew that Murdoch had hired detectives to find him and his mother, he had never really thought about the men who had done the looking. It was just their job, after all. Not once had he considered that any of them would take the task personally. Obviously he had been wrong.

*** *** *** ***

Later that night Johnny was still wrestling with his emotions. Between those blue-green eyes - beautiful in color, but cold and empty in death – that kept staring at him out of the darkness, and the words the marshal had said that kept rattling around inside his head, he was more than ready to get away from that place and return to Lancer.

He and the men who came with him would be heading back to the ranch in the morning. A rider had arrived just before the dinner break to tell the marshal that the railroad crews would be arriving first thing in the morning. The two men moved away and there were a few heated words exchanged, but Johnny had only gotten a sense of the anger; he was too far away to hear the actual words. The marshal was clearly upset when he stormed past Johnny. That had been a few hours ago, and now the marshal was standing over by the stream, at nearly the same spot where he and Johnny had talked earlier.

"Frank, there another clean cup over there?" Johnny asked as he refilled his own cup.

The metal cups clinked together when Frank pulled one out of the bucket of recently washed dishes. He held it out to Johnny, who filled it to the brim. "Thanks, Frank," he said as he took the second cup and headed for the forlorn figure of the marshal.


Just as Johnny had done earlier, the marshal accepted the offering without acknowledgement. Johnny stood there, waiting for the marshal to make the first move, listening to the rushing water and the more distant sounds of the men behind them. Some were preparing to leave in the morning, others were content to wait until daybreak to make the fuss. A few were talking by the fire, discussing the day's work, without revealing anything about how the grizzly scene had gotten to them.

"The railroad will be here tomorrow," the marshal said bitterly.

"That bad?"



"Money." More bitterness crept into the marshal's voice. His eyes were focused on the bodies laid out on the ground on the other side of the stream. "Don't matter that them folks over there are dead. All that matters is getting this rail back into operation so they don't lose any more money."

There was a time when Johnny knew he would feel the same way. As a businessman, though, he could now appreciate the dilemma of having to decide what was really the right thing to do, when letting business suffer could hurt even more people. "There's families that depend on the wages from the railroad."

The marshal nodded. "I know, but giving me a chance to find the bastards who caused this is important, too. Stupid fools had no business putting that kind of money on a passenger train."

Johnny's blood turned cold. "The ice storm didn't cause this?"

"Hell no!" the marshal snapped. He took a deep breath and then a sip of the coffee. "I found some cut timbers at the base of the trestle, and a couple dynamite bundles tied to one of the main supports. Looks like they planned to blow the bridge, but the ice storm took 'em by surprise while they were waiting for the train. The cut timbers was weak enough that the ice brought the whole thing down without ever having to use the explosives."

"They get anything?"

"Not what they was after," the marshal sounded somewhat pleased.

"Do you think you could find 'em if the railroad gave you the chance?"

The marshal turned towards Johnny, his expression full of rage. However, that lasted for only a brief moment, then it faded into disgust. "Probably not," he snorted. "Couldn't even find one scrawny little kid."

Johnny could only watch as the marshal walked away, his shoulders slumped in defeat.

Friday, December 9, 1870:

Denver -

Murdoch sat at the table, staring into the cup of coffee in front of him. Time seemed to pass so quickly; it seemed like just yesterday he was a young man working on the docks in Boston when his eyes had met those of Catherine Garrett. The Scotsman had immediately been enamored with her but he knew a man of his status stood no chance with a woman of her breeding. Travis had laughed at his friend when he had resorted to asking questions about who she was and where she lived. Murdoch smiled to himself as his thoughts turned to that day in the park. He had brought Travis with him, as if he could have kept his friend from coming along, and had sat on a bench watching the young woman as she walked her dog in the park. Catherine had stopped suddenly, turned and looked at both of them, walking towards them with a purpose, her young friends trailed behind her giggling.

The Scotsman had wanted to get up and bolt but Travis held his arm, stopping him. The blond-haired woman had demanded to know why he was following her, if he had something to say to her why didn't he just talk to her. The young immigrant had surprised himself when he had asked her out, and was even more shocked when she said yes.

Murdoch had taken Catherine to a very nice restaurant on their first date, wanting to impress her. They had enjoyed a wonderful evening and he had returned her home right on time. It was a couple weeks later and a few more dates after that when Harlan Garrett had paid him a visit at the docks to inform him he was not good enough for his daughter and he had better stay away from her.

Three days later, Catherine made her appearance asking him if he had meant what he said, that he loved her and wanted to marry her. The Scotsman had been a bit embarrassed, with all the other dockhands standing around waiting for his answer. Murdoch quickly took her aside and told her that he had meant every word, but he was concerned that he could not keep her in the lifestyle she was accustomed. The blond-haired woman had fire in her eyes, seeing through his words immediately. She told him she would handle her father and that if he wanted to marry her he had better be at her home that evening at five o'clock sharp for dinner.

Murdoch Lancer and Harlan Garrett had never seen eye to eye, butting heads at every turn. The Boston gentleman had even gone so far as to hire a couple men to persuade the dock hand to break his engagement, but that had been a wasted effort. True love could not be bullied.

The wedding had gone off without a hitch. Catherine's parents wanted to have a huge society wedding but the young couple chose to get married at the park with family and a few friends. Bess, the young woman's closest friend had stood up for her and Travis for him. It was not long after that Murdoch was best man at his friends wedding. The sandy-haired man had fallen for Bess and shortly after that they had moved to Colorado.

In the spring after their wedding, Murdoch and Catherine had packed up all their belongings and headed for California. A young couple filled with hopes and dreams of a future together.

"Murdoch?" Scott spoke, interrupting his father's thoughts. "Are you okay? I called your name three times!"

"Yes," his father replied uncomfortably. "I was lost in thought." He waved to the dishes laden with food. "Sit down and eat. We have the cattle auction this afternoon and I have an appointment this morning with a Denver banker."

"What for?" Scott asked, frowning.

"If we're going to bid at the auction," Murdoch explained. "We'll need some funds to do that with. Travis is going with me to work out the details."

"I could borrow the money," Scott suggested though he knew what his father's answer would be.

"No!" his father bellowed, slamming his fist on the table. "And you should know I would not take one cent from that man."

Scott nodded, picking up a biscuit he took a bite. Normally he would argue with his father but there was no point. At times the blond wondered if Murdoch and his grandfather hated each other more than they cared about him. He finished his breakfast in silence, looking up as Travis came in and sat down.

"Excuse me," Scott said quietly, not looking in his father's direction. "I have an errand to run, I'll meet you at the auction, Murdoch."


Scott walked out of the telegraph office, a smile on his face. Harlan had relented and agreed to send him the funds, though they would not arrive until tomorrow morning. His grandfather had stipulated that he was not pleased about releasing money from the trust so his grandson could consider it a birthday/Christmas present from him.

The blond headed towards the railroad station, hoping that his good fortune would continue and they would be heading for California shortly. Scott wanted to go home and see his brother for more than one reason. He missed Johnny terribly and he needed to talk to him. Johnny was the only other person who could appreciate the burning desire to knock some sense into Murdoch.


The young rancher turned, frowning as he saw his father making his way across the street. Scott had hoped he would not run into Murdoch until the auction started.

"Murdoch," Scott greeted succinctly as his father walked up beside him. "I was just headed to the station."

"It didn't take me that long at the bank," Murdoch informed him. "What have you been up to?"

"Just running errands," Scott replied evasively as they headed towards the building. "Nothing that concerns you."

"Scott," Murdoch stopped in front of the station. "About this morning-."

"I don't want to discuss my grandfather with you," Scott firmly, interrupting his father. "We always end up fighting, I think it would be wise if we just avoided him in future conversations." Scott opened the door to the station and stepped inside, his father following behind him.

"Excuse me," Scott walked up to the desk. "We were wondering if you've heard when the railroad will be operational again?"

"I'm sorry, Gentleman." The attendant looked haggard, like he had made this speech one too many times, already. "There is no way the train will be able to leave before the first of the year."

"What!" Murdoch bellowed. "We have to get home by Christmas!"

"I'm sorry, Sir," the man apologized, "but there's nothing I can do."

"Thank you," Scott said politely.

The two dejected men turned and walked out of the station.

"I promised Johnny this would be a special Christmas," Scott whispered, sadness evident in his eyes. "Our first Christmas as a family."

"There has to be a way!" Murdoch barked. "Somehow we have to make it home."

"Well, if you think of one, then you're a smarter man than I am," Scott returned.

"We might as well head for the auction. It will do no good moping around," his father pointed out. "When we get back to the house we'll try to think of something."

Scott reluctantly followed after his father. The last thing he wanted to do was go to the auction, but realistically he knew there was nothing either of them could do and they might as well take care of the business they could.

He had planned this first Christmas to be special, especially for Johnny. Instead, his brother would be spending it all alone. The young rancher wished with all his heart he could have changed places with his brother. The former Bostonian had experienced way too many Christmas' where he was buried in presents, though not always what a little boy would want. Scott had attended one party after another at Harlan's business associates homes, not to mention the gatherings at his friends, but not once had he been abandoned.

Johnny on the other hand, had grown up without knowing any of those things. The best his brother could have hoped for was a warm bed, a good meal and to stay alive. There was no Christmas tree with presents wrapped in pretty paper under it with his name on them. All he had was his gun, a horse and a bedroll laid out on the ground.

"Scott," Murdoch said quietly, stopping a block from the auction. "I know you're upset. So am I. If there's any way possible to get home before Christmas, we will find it." He placed his hand on Scott's shoulder in comfort.

"We have to, Murdoch." Scott implored.


Teresa lay in bed that night, tears silently falling onto her pillow. She had tried not to cry when Murdoch and Scott broke it to her that they would not be home in time for Christmas, but she had failed miserably. Her guardian and brother had tried to comfort her through their own feelings of heartbreak. None of them had been able to say anything that would ease the pain.

Dinner had been a solemn affair with all three of them pushing the food around on their plates until finally Scott set his fork down, claiming that he simply was not very hungry. Mr. MacPherson had tried in vain to find a way to cheer his sad guests up, but to no avail. Finally, they had retired to the parlor.

Scott started playing a game of checkers with their host, only to beg off that he was tired and was headed for bed. Teresa knew that truth be known, the her brother was either lying awake in bed or standing at the window staring out at the sky, wishing he were back home.

All of the plans she had made to make this a special first Christmas for Murdoch and his long lost sons were ruined. A special menu had been worked on for months. It included dishes from Boston, Scotland and Mexico. She realized the tremendous amount of work it would be, but to see the happiness on each of their faces would have made it all worth it.

She closed her eyes and prayed that God would somehow find a way to get them home by Christmas. It was a season of miracles and she wanted one very badly. Johnny did not deserve to spend another holiday alone and her only hope was that if they could not get back that those that were at the ranch would see that he was not forgotten. She smiled at that foolish thought; Jelly would make sure that Johnny was remembered. Scott and Johnny were like replacements for his boys, he would see that the younger Lancer had a nice holiday.

Still, she knew that no matter how much he was remembered, there would still be a sense of loss for Johnny. It was important to each of them that this first Christmas be spent together, as a family, but it seemed the fates were against them at every turn.


Lancer -

It was good to be home. Johnny had barely slept the night before, even after working late into the night clearing away more of the debris. There were just too many ghastly images rolling around in his head. The men from the railroad arrived at dawn and had pretty much taken over the entire scene. Johnny and men from Lancer, along with the rest of the volunteers, had been summarily dismissed. Yes, there was mention or two of being grateful for their help, but Johnny felt like they were all looked upon as nothing more than a nuisance. By the time they were saddled up and ready to head for home, Johnny was more than ready to get away from the greedy men who had no interest in anything but protecting their precious profits.

There had not even been an opportunity to say goodbye to the marshal - Marshal Jack Canton. The man's name would have remained unknown if the disgruntled cowboy had not overheard a couple of railroad vultures talking about the marshal like he was nothing but an incompetent fool. A smug grin tugged at Johnny's lips as he recalled the stunned look and bloodied nose of the loudest mouth of the pair. Johnny's hand still throbbed, but the satisfaction he had gotten from decking the pompous ass was more than worth the minor discomfort to his knuckles.

It was well after noon when the group of riders reached Lancer's borders. Johnny sent the men home to their families, or to sack out in the bunkhouse, as the case may be. There was only a few hours of daylight left, and Johnny needed to meet up with Cipriano before he started issuing orders that could create a mess instead of being productive. Besides, after all their hard work, the men needed this time. Johnny knew he did, and he would not deny his men the same consideration.

On his way to the hacienda, Johnny took a short detour to check the fencing along the southern edge of the south pasture. It would save someone else having to ride out in the morning, and Johnny wanted to be extra sure that everything was in order for the herd to be moved first thing Monday morning. Although he was sure that Murdoch would not object to the decision to send help to the train derailment, Johnny still wanted to be able to report that all was ready for the move when picked up his family at Cross Creek in the morning.

"How'd it go, Cipriano?" Johnny asked as soon as Lancer's segundo entered the barn.

"Muy bueno. It is good you are back, Juanito." There was both respect and affection in the man's greeting as he approached Barranca's stall. "The strays have been gathered, and the herd is  ready."

This news was a tremendous relief to the young man. He had hated putting the ranch off on the older man, but Cipriano was more than competent, and Johnny had not been able to resist the need to offer his help. "That's great news, Cip. Gracias."

Cipriano proceeded to inform Johnny of the status of the lesser projects that were always underway on a working ranch while Johnny groomed Barranca. The brush was returned to the cubby hole at the head of the stall, the golden neck was given a loving pat, and Johnny exited the stall, an appreciative smile on his face for the segundo that was both employee and friend. "Muchas gracias, Amigo."

Cipriano retuned the younger man's smile with a nod, then said in a low voice. "Was it bad, Juanito?"

The good feelings slipped away, but Johnny was grateful for the wise old man's steadfast presence. "Yeah, it was muy malo," he mumbled. "Join me for a drink?"


As they walked towards the house, Johnny could not help but remember the way things had been before the two men had reached an understanding. Cipriano had been polite towards the Patrón's younger son, but there had been a coldness in his attitude. Johnny had found out later that it had been Cipriano who informed Murdoch of Johnny's meeting with Pardee in the cantina.

Afterwards, when Johnny had no ridden with his brother in the attempt to trick Pardee, a touch of resentment was born because Johnny's refusal to go along with his Scott and Murdoch's approach. The Mexican segundo was of the old country, and adhered to the old traditions, which held that the young always yielded to the wisdom of those who were older. Eventually, Johnny had gotten fed up with the condescending looks, and that's when things changed. The segundo had been cornered in a dry creek bed, and the gauntlet thrown down.

With a brutal honesty, Cipriano had answered Johnny's demand for answers with an assessment that left Johnny feeling both defeated and angry. Thankfully, he had already forced himself to accept that he would have to prove himself to those who saw him as nothing but, Johnny Madrid, and troublesome gunfighter who had fallen into a very good deal. With equally brutal honesty, Johnny had explained himself, his actions, and his desire to make the most of this second chance he had been granted.

Why he had done so was still a mystery to even him. To open himself up to a stranger, a stranger who had already decided that Johnny Madrid had no place at Lancer, had been more of a gamble than Johnny had ever taken before. The gamble had paid off, though, and he had never regretted that moment of trust that could have proven to be a monumental mistake if Cipriano had been lesser of a man.

The sage Mexican had said nothing more than a few words of acknowledgement, but from that moment on there had been nothing but respect in his interactions with Johnny. During the months following that verbal showdown, an affection had grown between the two men, and now they both trust the other without hesitation.

Johnny used his hat to slap some of the trail dust off of his pants, then entered the hacienda through the French doors, with Cipriano following closely on his heels. The tantalizing smells of fresh baked bread and roast beef immediately assaulted Johnny's olfactory senses and had his mouth watering. There would be no beans tonight, and for that he was extremely grateful. He poured two glasses of tequila, and smiled when he turned around to see Cipriano sitting in nearer chair at the front of Murdoch's desk.

That chair was where he or his brother would sit when Murdoch was issuing orders, or other ranch business was being discussed. Johnny would have preferred the informality of a place nearer the fireplace, but Cipriano seemed determined to make sure that Johnny accepted his role as the man in charge. Given their rocky start, Johnny appreciated the sentiment very much.

He handed Cipriano one of the glasses and then sat down in Murdoch's chair behind the desk with a contented sigh. "It's good to be home, Amigo."

For the next half hour, Johnny talked and Cipriano listened. Some of his memories were just too painful to put into words - those blue-green eyes that still haunted him - but for the most part, he was able to relay what he and the other men had seen, and done.

When he was finished, Cipriano raised his glass. "You did well, Juanito, but it is good you are home."

Johnny raised his glass in return of the gesture, then downed the remaining liquor in one gulp. "It'll be good to have the Old Man back in this chair," he said softly. Realizing that Cipriano had not responded, Johnny looked up and saw the sad questioning look on the older man's face. "What is it?"

Cipriano hesitated. In a very low voice, he said the words that had Johnny's joyful anticipation crashing down at his feet, "If the train bridge is no more, how will el Patrón and your hermano and hermana return from Denver?"   

Saturday, December 10, 1870:

Denver -


Scott walked into the dining room. He picked up the coffee pot and poured himself a cup of coffee, glancing up as Travis entered the room.

"Good morning, Travis," Scott murmured, sitting down at the table.

"Morning," their host returned cheerfully. He pulled out the chair across from Scott and sat down. "What do you have planned for today?"

"Just a couple errands," Scott said quietly. "I met a rancher who has a spread outside of town, he invited me out to check out his stock. I'm planning on spending the night."

"Would that be Mike Mulligan?" Travis inquired.

"Yes," Scott acknowledged. "He seems to know a lot about horses."

"Oh, he does," his host agreed. "Some of his stock is bred for horse racing and they are among the top winners. Ever heard of Midnight Sun?"

"Of course I have," Scott exclaimed. "Who hasn't? That is the number one horse in racing today!"

"Mike's made a lot of money off that one, and so have I," Travis confessed.

"You're a gambler?" Scott asked in surprise.

"No," Travis laughed heartily, "I couldn't pick the winner in a one horse race. I am, however, Mike's partner. In my younger days I was a banker. I got tired of spending my days in an office and I started investing my earnings in other venues."

"I used to work for my grandfather," Scott disclosed. "I hated being cooped up inside an office all day."

"How is Harlan doing?" Travis asked.

"Grandfather is doing well," Scott replied guardedly.

"The last time I saw him was at my wedding," the sandy haired man mused. "I married your mother's best friend, Bess. We didn't make it very long after our marriage and we moved out here. It was the only way we could have a marriage that didn't include her father right in the middle."

"Is that why Murdoch and my mother moved to California?" Scott frowned. His father had told him they had gone west because it was their dream.

"No!" Travis exclaimed. "Our boat hadn't been in port a week and your father was dreaming of California. He had read about it in the papers and was determined he was going out there and make a life for himself."

"That's pretty much what he said," Scott admitted. "What about my mother, did she want to go?"

"Catherine?" Travis grinned. "You bet she did, your mother had your father and Harlan wrapped around her little finger. There was no making her do anything."

"My grandfather told me Murdoch talked her into going," Scott murmured. Despite their differences of opinion on certain issues, his loyalty to his grandfather was still intact, but he yearned for the truth of how it had really been back then.

"Don't get me wrong, in an odd way I respected your grandfather," his host reassured him. "He was afraid for his daughter. She was moving across the country to an untamed land with a man her family barely knew."

"A man my grandfather despised," Scott admitted.

"Not despised," the investor corrected him. "Maybe disliked intensely." He waved the young Lancer off as he started to speak. "It wasn't your father, you know. It would have been the same with any man Harlan hadn't hand picked. Of course, what your grandfather didn't realize is your mother would never have married his choice. She wanted to marry for love, not status."

"How do you know so much about her?" Scott prompted.

"Your mother told me," Travis explained. "She was marrying my best friend and I had to make sure she loved him and was not just using him to get back at her parents. Of course she set me straight real quick."

Scott watched as the older man's hand went unconsciously to his jaw. "She slapped you?"

"Catherine punched me right in the jaw," the sandy haired man laughed. "I would never have thought your mother had it in her. She appeared to be this delicate wallflower, but in reality she was a strong woman. There was a lot of grit and iron under that façade."

"You paint a different picture than grandfather," Scott admitted. "He told me my mother was too delicate for ranching."

"Harlan couldn't see her any other way," Travis disclosed. "She was more like a..."

"Possession?" Scott suggested. He could tell his father's friend was reluctant to finish.

"Well, I didn't want to say that," his host acknowledged. "He is your grandfather and in his own way he loved her."

"It must have been hard for her to leave her family," Scott mused.

"Your father offered to stay in Boston," Travis revealed. "He loved her enough to give up his dream, but she would have none of that. Oh, she cried when they left Boston, just as my Bessie did, but she didn't look back. The letters she sent to my wife were filled with a love for your father, the land and a hope for a bright future."

"She wrote to your wife?" Scott exclaimed. He would give anything to read those letters.

"Yes," his host affirmed. "I have them in the attic. Would you like to read them? I'm sure Bess would have approved."

"Yes," Scott admitted.

"Mr. MacPherson," his butler interrupted, walking into the room. "You wanted me to remind you of your appointment this morning."

"Thank you," Travis responded gratefully. "Scott, I'd love to talk to you more about your parents."

"I'd like that," Scott agreed. "I have to warn you though, Murdoch does not like discussing the past."

"Maybe we need to work on him," the sandy haired man grinned. "Have a good time with Mike, and tell him I said hello."

"Yes, Sir," Scott nodded. He looked down at his plate, realizing with shock that while he had talked to his father's friend he had ate a full breakfast. The young rancher had been so upset about not being home for Christmas he was sure he could not have eaten. Travis had managed to take his mind off his brother for a little while.

"Morning, Scott." Teresa murmured, walking into the room.

"Morning," Scott responded, getting up from the table. "Will you remind Murdoch when he gets back I won't be home until sometime tomorrow? I'm going to one of the local ranches to check out their stock."

"Sure," Teresa nodded. "Have a good time."

Noticing the redness in her eyes, Scott whispered, "We'll find a way to get home," and squeezed her shoulder. "We have to."

Scott headed upstairs to grab a few things to take to the ranch with him.


Murdoch Lancer headed towards the telegraph office at a slow pace. He had spent the day signing papers for the cattle purchased the day before and had lunch with Ted Crosby, the two of them consoling the other over their misfortune of being stranded in Denver.

It had been over twenty years since he had spent a Christmas with Johnny and it seemed fate was going to step in once more and keep him from spending another one with his younger son. Murdoch had been tempted to go to the railroad station and check once more, but Travis had revealed to him last night that he was an investor in the train industry and that he had left instructions for someone to send word directly to him, home or office, if there was any way the train could leave sooner.

The gray-haired man frowned; he knew there was no chance he could send out a telegram to Johnny, but still he had to check. He needed to feel like he was doing something. He entered the office, smiling at the weary man behind the desk who shook his head silently.

"No luck yet, huh?" Murdoch sympathized with officer.

"Afraid not," The telegraph man shook his head. "However, I do have a telegram for your son. Would you like to take it to him?"

"A telegram for Scott?" Murdoch frowned. Who would be sending his son a telegram in Denver. He took the envelope and headed out onto the street, heading back to Travis' house. Suddenly, curiosity got the better of him and he opened the envelope slipping the telegram out. The ranchers face darkened with anger at the words he read and he set off at a faster pace, storming in the front door of the house.

"Scott!" He yelled. "Scott, where are you!"

"Gracious, Murdoch!" Teresa exclaimed, coming out of the parlor. "What is all the commotion about?"

"Where's Scott!" Murdoch demanded angrily. "I need to talk to him."

"He's not here," the dark haired woman frowned. "Scott said to remind you he was checking out a rancher's stock today and wouldn't be back until tomorrow. What's wrong?"

"Scott went behind my back and asked Harlan to send money," Murdoch bellowed. "After I specifically told him not to."

"Maybe he has a good reason," Teresa speculated.

"There is no good reason!" the rancher hollered. "You know how I feel about that man, I will not use one cent of his money!" He stormed upstairs, returning a few minutes later.

"I'm going out for the evening," Murdoch informed his ward. "Don't wait up for me." He walked out of the house slamming the door.

Teresa shook her head and headed back into the sitting room. This trip was going from awful to worse. First they were robbed, and now they were stranded. Tomorrow, Murdoch and Scott were going to lock heads. She prayed silently that her guardian would not push his son into returning to Boston.


Lancer -

Alone. That one word kept rolling around in Johnny's mind, invading each thought like a pesky gnat that would not go away, and could not be swatted down. The lone elm tree growing in the middle of a clearing off to the side of the road, just before the road forked, one leg leading to Morro Coyo, the other to Green river. The rabbit that skittered away at Barranca's steady approach. The hawk that circled overhead, diving and swirling on the invisible wind, his sharp cry shattering the silence, but without answer. Everything around him seemed to accentuate the loneliness that had taken root in his soul.

After a trip that had seemed ten times as long as normal, Johnny pulled on the reins, bringing Barranca to a halt in front of Val's office. He needed some answers, and his friend had become his last resort. Evan, down at the telegraph office had been unable to give him any information. He was hoping that Val's legal connections might make a difference.

"Whatcha doin' out this way, Johnny?" Val asked a soon as Johnny walked into the warm interior of the Green River jail. "Though you said you was gonna be movin' that herd today."

"Monday, Val," Johnny corrected. Without preamble, he grabbed what he figured to be a clean enough cup from the small cupboard and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot that was brewing on the pot belly stove. "What do you know about this storm?" he cut to the chase.

"Not much," Val frowned. "Telegraph lines are down east a here, an' with that train wrecked and the bridge gone, there ain't no getting over the mountains that way, neither." The wooden chair squeaked ominously when Val leaned back, balancing on just the two back legs. "I got a couple a inquiries from some lawmen down south a here, and heard from Clem Davis up near Eagle Junction, all wantin' to know if I knew anything. Ain't know way of knowin' how far east it hit, but it sure cut off east from west, right down the middle of the Rockies."

"Jelly get off okay, though?"

"Sure did. He weren't too happy about it, but the stage driver said as far as he knew, going north or south wasn't no problem. You wanna go east or west...well, you ain't goin' get too far lessn' ya have wings or a boat."

What little hope Johnny had been holding onto slipped away. The boat idea could work - of course, that would take a cross country trek and several months at sea, and by that time the ice would be long gone. The flying thing would be a whole lot faster if it was not so totally absurd. Flying over the mountains?! Why not just say you're gonna fly to the moon, too?

"Why you so interested in-" Clarity hit with a resounding thud, as did the front legs of Val's chair as they impacted the floor. "Dang it, Johnny. I didn't even think about Scott and Murdoch being stuck in Denver."

"Teresa, too," Johnny added softly. They were all there. And he was here.

"I'll do some checking, Johnny. See what I can find out for ya."

Johnny forced a smile. "Thanks, Val." He was almost to the door, ready to head back to the ranch, when he turned back to his friend. "You ever hear of a marshal by the name of Canton? Jack Canton?"

"The marshal that sent out that call fer help?"


Val rubbed his jaw, his fingers rustling a beard so stiff that Johnny could hear the noise clear across the room. "Nope, don't believe I have. You ain't got a beef with 'im, do ya?"

For a long second, Johnny could clearly remember the man as he had last seen him, walking away with a heart heavy over something that neither one of them could have changed. "No, Val, I got no beef with the marshal. He just seemed like a real nice guy."

Pushing his somber thoughts aside, Johnny smiled at Val and reached for the door handle. "Ain't natural for a lawman to be anything but grouchy and full of sass," he added with a smirk, ducking out the door a fraction of a second before a metal cup clanked loudly against the jamb.

*** *** *** ***

Later that evening, Johnny and Cipriano were going over the details of moving the herd one more time. It wasn't like it was a long drive, just from one end of the ranch to the other, but there were a couple of obstacles that could make the move a bit tricky. The main obstacle was the river that cut that whole section off from the rest of Lancer land. The water was welcomed, and necessary, but getting twenty-thousand head of cattle to tread water and not be stupid enough to drown could be a bit trying.

"I did a final check on that fence line yesterday. It looked real good."

Cipriano nodded. "Muy bueno."

Leaning back in the padded leather chair, Johnny studied the map of Lancer laid out on the desk before them. Murdoch had told both him and Scott about moving the herd to the south pasture for winter grazing, but this would be...correction, would have been their first experience. Now it would be just Johnny. "What about this bridge?" he asked, tapping the area on the map where a wooden bridge crossed the river.

"It should hold."

"Should hold?" Johnny queried a bit nervously.

"Sí, she will hold," Cipriano reaffirmed. "The bridge was rebuilt just last spring."

"I remember," Johnny nodded. "Murdoch and Scott were talking about it when I was laid up after the fight with Pardee. Scott was trying to talk him into replacing it with a metal bridge, but Murdoch said it'd be too much money. I remember something about Lancer being full of lumber."

"Sí, this is true, Juanito."

"Enough talk, is time to eat," Maria announced loudly, and with conviction.

The two men exchanged knowing grins and moved over to the table. Men and horse might rule the range, but they was no doubt whose word was law inside the walls of the hacienda...and it was not Murdoch Lancer's.

*** *** *** ***

The sun set and the night turned cold. A couple more logs were tossed into fireplace, arranged without thought but with the efficiency of one who had done this many times in his young life. Even when food had been scarce, there had always been some kind of wood laying around. A fire was built, and if it was a good day, a meal was heated over the flames and then the same fire provided a warm place to sleep. On a bad day, there was only warmth.

Knowing that if he went to bed he would only toss and turn, Johnny poured himself a glass of tequila and stretched out on the sofa in front of the fire. An hour later, when he went for his second glass, his hand stopped just before it reached the tall bottle containing the fiery elixir that has been his preferred drink since he was twelve. Instead, he gazed intently at the bottle next to it. The green bottle, more squatty and round, that was made to look black by the dark liquid inside.

Scott's favorite brandy. Johnny had tried it before and had not been that impressed. However, that was the bottle his hand decided to pick up, and it was the dark amber liquid that nearly splashed out of the glass as he poured it a little too quickly. For a long time he stared at the drink, not knowing what he expected to see, or if he even expected anything. After taking a deep breath, he took a drink, savoring the sweetness before swallowing hard.

This was Scott's brandy. Johnny didn't even like it, but for some reason it was the only thing that he wanted. After pushing the stopper firmly back into neck of the bottle, Johnny returned to the sofa, and laid down, his socked feet resting on the pillow Teresa put there for just such a purpose; well, that and to protect the sofa from dirty feet.

The light of the fire reflected off the glass, creating a simple, but impressive display of color. He tried another sip, and this time, for just a moment, he actually thought he liked the taste. Was it really the brandy, or just the thought that this was as close to his family as he could be? He didn't know, and by the time the glass was empty, the fire in the fireplace had become nothing but barely glowing embers and Johnny was asleep.

Sunday, December 11, 1870:

Denver -

Scott stood outside the fence, watching the young stallion as he frolicked in the corral. He had arrived too late the previous evening to do any serious surveying of what the Mulligan stables had to offer. He had woken up early, anxious to get a head start on his quest for the perfect gift. With a graceful ease, he slid through the fence rails and approached the animal cautiously.

The breed was easy to recognize from the research he had put into this venture. The animal was an Andalusian, black in color, with a broad forehead and oval eyes that enhanced his beauty. The breed was known for producing strong and elegant animals, and this stallion was no exception.

Scott turned towards the fence and grinned at Mike Mulligan, a short, stocky man with black hair. "You have a deal, Mr. Mulligan," Scott called out as he walked back over to the rancher. "I'll send you the money after I get back to Lancer."

"No hurry," Mike shrugged, but the smile on his face gave away his extreme pride in his horses. "You can make the payments like we agreed on. I'll send those three mares you picked out next spring."

"You don't know what this means to me," the young Lancer said appreciatively. "I've been hunting for the perfect Christmas present for my brother." He glanced over at the stallion once more. "Johnny has everything he needs, bet when it comes to his wants, he just won't ask for much."

"It's a pleasure doing business with you, Scott. Your brother is a very lucky man." The Colorado horseman's smile was warm as he reached out to shake Scott's hand. "I'll have the stallion brought to Travis' private stables tomorrow." He grinned at the elation on the younger man's face. "How about we go have some breakfast? Then we can get the papers signed."

"That sounds perfect," Scott replied, grinning. "I'm starved."

As the two men walked toward the ranch house, Scott wanted to do a somersault or two he was so happy. He laughed at the thought. Mike would probably think he had lost his mind.

For the last few months, Johnny's Christmas present had become an obsession for him. He wanted it to be perfect, something his brother would enjoy, but it also had to be something that would show Johnny exactly how much it meant to Scott to have him for a brother. Johnny's dream to raise horses had been the start, but somewhere along the way it had become Scott's desire, too, and he was determined to make this happen for his brother. They should have grown up together, side by side, but because of fate they had missed out on those first twenty years. Scott was determined that the next twenty would more than make up for it.


Murdoch sat in the parlor, waiting for his son to return to the house. Teresa was up in her room, she had not said a word since last night, but if the looks she had given him were any indication the dark haired woman was not happy with her guardian. The gray haired man felt the anger surge inside him once more. Scott should have known better than to go behind his back. He stood up as the front door opened and shut, watching to see whom past the doorway.

"Murdoch!" Scott said excitedly. "I have-"

"Wait a minute," Murdoch interrupted angrily as he strode across the room. "I want to know what this is all about." He handed the telegram to Scott.

Scott paled, knowing he had reached the end of the line; it was time to tell his father about his wallet. "I wired my grandfather for-" he began, only to be interrupted once more.

"I told you I would not take money from Harlan Garrett!" Murdoch fumed. "You deliberately went behind my back when you knew I wouldn't accept money from him."

"That was not the reason," Scott denied, he took a breath and let the words out. "I left my wallet in the hotel room last Sunday, it was taken in the robbery."

"What!" Murdoch screamed. "How could you be so irresponsible?"

"Now wait a minute," Scott exclaimed angrily. "I am accus-"

"I would never have expected that of you," his father sneered. "Now it wouldn't have surprised me if it had been..."

Scott looked up as his father stopped. "You wouldn't have been surprised if it had been who, Murdoch?" he demanded, heatedly. "Johnny?"

"That's not important, Scott." Murdoch dismissed his question. "I want to know-"

"It may not be important to you, but it is important to me," Scott insisted, pushing the issue. "Were you talking about Johnny?"

"Yes!" Murdoch yelled. "That's exactly who I was talking about."

"Sometimes I wonder why he stayed," Scott's temper snapped. "Why either of us did, but that can be changed easily if you don't change your tune."

"Are you threatening me?" Murdoch roared.

"No," Scott shot back. "I'm just giving you some free advice. I'm as sick of you expecting me to be perfect, as Johnny is of you pointing out all his faults. Mark my words. Murdoch. You'd better find a way to change your way of thinking, or you may find that the land you love so much is all you have left, Sir!" Scott turned angrily and strode from the parlor, grabbed his coat and stormed out of the house with a forceful slam of the door.


Scott sat alone in a back corner of the saloon, a glass of whiskey on the table, his second of the night. He had no intention of getting drunk, but he wanted to get rid of the pain that cut him to his soul. He really tried hard to keep the peace with his father, to be a good son and to do the right thing.

Despite all Scott's successes in that regard, there had been no understanding or sympathy from his father; Murdoch had jumped on him like he was a three-year old. It was bad enough that he had been beating himself up for being so foolish as to leave his wallet in the hotel room; he did not need Murdoch to add to his misery. After all, it was not the ranch money, or even Murdoch's, it was his, as was the money his father kept seeing as 'Harlan's money'.

Scott still felt guilty, though, about the way he had lashed out at his father. While he was glad he had finally expressed the frustration and anger that he had been feeling for months, he wished he had found a better approach for getting his point across.

Then there was the other factor. If he were to be totally honest, he would have to admit that his irritation over his grandfather's lording of his trust fund over his head had been a big part of his outburst. No, irritated was not accurate, he was just plain angry. Murdoch's reaction to his confession had unjustified, but his antagonistic feelings towards his grandfather had made his own response equally as unreasonable.

The blond looked up as someone started playing music and a woman started to sing. Scott looked up and was stunned to see his elusive auburn woman leaning on the piano. She seemed to be smiling directly at him, and he hoped to finally get an opportunity to talk to her. For the next hour, the young rancher sat back and listened to her sweet voice, which proved to be a soothing balm to his troubled soul.

When she finished her performance. He stood up, intending to catch her before she escaped, when the green-eyed beauty turned to him, raising her hand she signaled him to join her. Scott walked over to her and leaned down as she whispered in his ear. He smiled his consent, and they walked out of the saloon together.


After dinner, Travis sat in the living room with his guests. He tried to think of a way to ask them what was wrong without coming right out and asking. Murdoch had been quiet and unapproachable all evening and Teresa had answered questions when asked, but other than that had offered nothing to the conversation.

"I'm going to bed," Murdoch announced, getting up and walking out of the room to head up the stairs.

A few minutes later, Travis turned to Teresa. "I don't want to be nosy, but I couldn't help but notice that you could cut the tension in this room with a knife."

"Murdoch and Scott got in an argument this afternoon," Teresa replied, tears welling in her eyes.

"I'm sure they've argued before," the gentleman said in an attempt to comforted her. "Scott will come home and it will be okay."

"You don't understand," the dark haired woman implored. "It's never been like this. Both of them were yelling. Usually, Scott stays calm and let's Murdoch blow off steam."

"Maybe Scott just had enough," her host assured her. "He is Murdoch's son, after all."

"Mr. MacPherson," Teresa began, amending his name as he frowned. "Travis. Scott is...well, he's not like Murdoch. Scott is the family peacemaker. Whenever Johnny and Murdoch go at it, Scott steps in and patches things up." The tears fell down her cheeks. "But today Scott threatened to leave!"

"I haven't' been around him much," Travis admitted. "But what I've seen of him, Scott doesn't seem like a quitter. I'm sure he was not serious. Men tend to say things they don't actually mean when they get angry."

"I know. It's just that Murdoch pushes them into it," Teresa said, anger getting the best of her. "Sometimes I wonder if he really wants them at Lancer."

"Oh, he does," the sandy-haired man said with total confidence. "He just doesn't realize they're both grown up. I think my friend regrets never having had a chance to raise them and he's trying to make up for that now."

"Well, he better discover that soon." Teresa dried her eyes with a handkerchief. "Or one of these days Scott will mean it, and if they go, I'll...I'll leave too. And I'm not just saying that because I'm angry."

"I'll talk to Murdoch in the morning," Travis assured her. "I'm sure he's already regretting what he said."

"I'm sure he is," Teresa agreed, standing up. "But sometimes regrets come to little, too late. It's getting late. I think I'll head to bed."

Travis watched her leave; pouring himself another sherry he shook his head. Murdoch was lucky to have his children at home. The investor thought of his own children, spread out all over the country. He did not get to see them everyday anymore, and that was sometimes very hard for him to accept. Murdoch was taking for granted that his sons settled with him at Lancer, and that angered Travis. Tomorrow, he was going to have a little talk with his old friend, and one way or another he was going to straighten out Murdoch Lancer.


Lancer -

Just before noon and Johnny was still sitting at Murdoch's desk about to go through the previous week's mail that had been forgotten in the wake of Jelly's departure and the days away because of the train derailment. He was surprised when his ears picked up the unmistakable rattle of an approaching wagon.

It was Sunday, so most of the hands were spending a quiet day at home with their families. Those who had no one were usually back at the bunkhouse, tidying up after spending the morning sleeping in. The afternoon would be spent doing laundry, oiling down their tack, and repairing any damage that had been done to either during the prior week's work.

No one was scheduled to be hauling anything in today. With a frown, Johnny headed for the French doors, coffee cup in hand, in time to see two chestnut draft horses pull an overloaded wagon up to a halt by the hitching rail. His frown disappeared when he got a good look at the man holding the reins. "Marshal Canton," Johnny said as he stepped out onto the veranda.

The marshal paused, his sad expression becoming even gloomier at Johnny's cheery greeting. "Johnny," he replied with a nod.

Although the rescue effort had allowed Johnny to spend very little time in the other man's company, he knew without asking that this was a business. "Guess this ain't no social visit," Johnny stated what he already knew.

"Nope." The marshal took a deep breath and then climbed down from the wagon. He accepted Johnny's hand for a shake that was no more than a mutual jerk. His grip, however, was maintained for a little too long.

"Might as well spit it out, Marshal."

The older man nodded. "Me an' a couple of those railroad men went looking for the ones who rigged up that trestle."

Nonplused, Johnny waited for the man to continue.

"Figured the storm might have snuck up on 'em while they was waiting for the train. We found some bodies a ways down stream."

Johnny's blood chilled. There would be no reason for the marshal to be telling him any of this unless the bandits had something to do with Lancer.

That thought was snatched away when the marshal's next words. "We was wrong." The lawman looked up at Johnny, his eyes filled with emotion. "Turned out they were passengers on the train. Musta been swept away by the current before anyone else got there."

An intense fear swept over Johnny. For a split second he could think of nothing but his family - his father, his sister, his recently discovered brother. That fleeting thought passed with the silent and grateful acknowledgement that the three people who had become his world would have had no reason to have been on that train.

"What's that got to do with Lancer?" he asked, his curt voice revealing his unease. "I don't reckon you came all this way just to tell me you didn't find those bandits."

"One of the..." The marshal paused and looked away. "We found a letter on one of the victims. Was pretty smudged up from the water and all, but there was enough left to see that it had been signed by you. The 'Madrid' part had been scratched out, though, and 'Lancer' was written below it."

"A letter?" Johnny barely managed to choke out.

The marshal reached into his coat and pulled out a large envelope. He opened it carefully, and pulled out a paper that had definitely seen better days. Forgoing senseless words of platitude, he placed the limp document in Johnny's outstretched hand.

The tightness in his chest became almost unbearable as Johnny recognized the scrawled signature at the very bottom of the page. It was smudged, but still recognizable as his name. Johnny Madrid had few acquaintances from his days on the border that he cared to remember, much less contact, so Johnny already knew who the recipient of this particular letter had been; it was this letter that had been the source of the last major blowup between himself and the Old Man.

When he had first brought up the matter, Murdoch had instantly issued a rather loud refusal to even consider the possibility. Instead of arguing back, though, Johnny had bit his tongue and let the old man have his say. When the yelling was done, Johnny had taken his stand, and to his total surprise, Murdoch had not gone off on him again.

Instead, his father had stayed seated behind his desk, and after a long silence that had Johnny ready to jump out of his skin, the gray-haired head gave a nod. 'I guess there are some things in your past for which I can be grateful', he had said in an uncharacteristic moment of understanding. 'Your friend has a job here, if he wants it. We'll help him get his family settle, too.'

The next day Johnny had mailed the letter to Mexico that he now held once again in his hand. His gaze left the letter that had been his joy only a few weeks before, to settle on the crates that could be seen above the sides of the wagon. Those crates he knew now were coffins - coffins that held the bodies of a man who had saved his life, along with the family that man had loved; the family that Johnny had once envied him.

"The bodies are, well, they'd been the water for too long," the marshal's scratchy voice interrupted Johnny's thoughts. "Fish and coyotes and such. There were some bear tracks near where we found 'em washed up, too. It ain't pretty."

Johnny could only nod. His stare remained steady on the rough-cut wooden slats, but his eyes were seeing the laughing smile that would always be Pablo's.

Reaching behind him, the marshal pulled out a small box from under the wagon's seat. "We found a few personal items on 'em. Ain't much, but I figured you'd might want 'em, so I put 'em aside before the boxes was nailed shut."

Carefully folding up the letter, Johnny tucked it into the waistband of his pants before taking the box from the marshal. He opened the lid slowly, and then looked down at all that was left of the man with whom he had fought side by side his compadre.

On top were a couple of hair combs. One he recognized as the one Pablo's wife wore just about everyday. The other was smaller, and familiar, too. He figured it belonged to Pilar, the bright-eyed little girl who had always called Johnny by the anglicized version of his name, as did her mother, instead of 'Juanito', like Pablo and his sons. Next to them was little Jose's toy pony, a birthday gift whittled for him by his father during the last peaceful moments before the revolution turned into a failure. Johnny's time had been spent on another project, one that he hoped would be a special birthday surprise for Pablo, who had the same birthday as his son. A few days later, Johnny was kneeling on the ground waiting to be shot by a firing squad. He had not died that day, but he could have been.

Under the wooden horse was a lace handkerchief, soiled by dirt and grass. The box slipped in Johnny's hand, and the handkerchief shifted. Johnny's heart skipped a beat when he caught sight of what lay beneath. The hand-tooled leather was badly discolored by water and weather, but he would recognize it anywhere.

He had spent long frustrated hours painstakingly tooling the designs of Mexico into the cured hide, then binding it all together with strips board fingers had cut from a ruined leather jacket. Next to the wallet was a belt buckle, made by someone else's hands, but which had been received with just as much appreciation and joy.

"They weren't supposed to be here yet," Johnny said hoarsely when a firm hand gripped his shoulder in support. "Pablo's letter said that they weren't coming 'til next spring. Novia was due to give birth around Christmas, and...they...why..." Sapphire blue eyes filled with anguish looked into blue-gray eyes that held nothing but sympathy and sorrow. "They weren't supposed to be coming. Not yet. Not on that train."

Monday, December 12, 1870:

Denver -

Scott sat in the restaurant eating breakfast, across from him sat the elusive green-eyed woman that had haunted him since he arrived in Denver. He now knew her as Amanda Beaumont.

"Are you sure you don't want to go to church with me," Amanda asked, taking a drink of her coffee.

"No," Scott murmured. "But I wondered if you would do me a favor?"

"Sure," the auburn-haired woman smiled at him. "What do you need?"

"I need to get a message to my family," Scott explained. "Teresa, she's the dark-haired woman you saw me with at the hotel restaurant."

"Is she your wife?" Amanda frowned.

"No!" Scott exclaimed, and then smiled as he remembered they had been too busy last night to find out much about each other. "She's like a sister, and Murdoch is my father. I wondered if you would find a moment to tell her that I'm fine, I'll be home later."

"You could stay another night with me," the auburn-haired woman said seductively.

"I wouldn't want to impose," Scott said mischievously.

"You, Scott Lancer," Amanda purred, "are no imposition."

"Tell her I'll be back tomorrow then," Scott smiled warmly.

"You are welcome to return to my home," the seductress purred. "I should be home a little after twelve."

"I'll be there," Scott promised, a twinkle in his eyes. They finished their breakfast and Scott walked her to the corner, watching as she made her way to the church and then turned and headed back towards her home.

A sudden chill came over Scott, so cold he stopped for a moment. Johnny was the first thought that came to his head. The blond had such a longing for home it was almost unbearable. He never should have come on this vacation and left his brother home without any family, but he let Johnny and his father convince him that nothing bad could possibly happen.

Scott had no doubt that the ranch was doing fine, there was no one more capable of keeping Lancer running smoothly than his brother. Johnny had a feel for the land as if he had been born there. The blond paused a moment and grinned to himself, sometimes it was hard to remember that unlike him, his younger brother had spent his first two years at the Hacienda.

The young rancher remembered a night a few weeks before they left, the brothers were returning one night late from Morro Coyo when Johnny had asked him what he had felt that first day they arrived at Lancer, when Teresa had stopped the wagon and shown them the view from above the ranch house.

The blond told him that he had felt like he had come home, that ever since he had returned from the war, Scott had been searching for something, never quite satisfied. The former Easterner spoke of the increased disagreements between him and his grandfather over his continuing to work at Garrett Enterprises. It was not a common thing but on this night Scott felt words spill from him that he had never shared with anyone. How cheated he felt that he had never known his mother, how angry and resentful that he had a father, who knew where he was but had never bothered to come after him.

Johnny had quietly sat on Barranca and listened. His dark-haired brother never said a word, just allowed him to share, as if knowing this was something rare. Scott had felt a bit embarrassed when he was finished, only to take his turn as listener while his younger brother spoke of his life as a gunfighter.

A life of meeting strangers in the street, who called you out to prove they were better, most nights being lucky if you had a dry patch of dirt to sleep on, let alone a bed. Johnny talked of drifting from job to job never feeling like he belonged anywhere or with anyone. He spoke of his anger and hate for a man who owned a ranch outside of Morro Coyo, who had denied his son a place in his life.

The brothers had continued toward home, neither speaking a word about what the other had said. This was an important part of the bond between them that sometimes words did not need to be spoken.

Scott turned up the sidewalk to Amanda's home. "Johnny, I really miss you' he said to himself. 'We'll be home as soon as we can.'


"Murdoch," Travis greeted his old friend as he walked into the dining room. "My cook has a plate warm for you in the kitchen. I'll have her bring it out." The sandy-haired man walked toward the kitchen doors.

"Thank you," Murdoch growled, he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down. He had not meant to over sleep and miss Church, but he had been up most of the night, waiting to hear the front door close and his son's footsteps on the stairs.

"Teresa went to church with my friends next door," Travis explained as he came back with a plate he set in front of his friend.

"Scott must have gotten in late," Murdoch surmised. "I fell asleep about four o'clock and he hadn't returned yet."

"He didn't come home," the sandy-haired man informed him, continuing as he saw the worry on Murdoch's face. "I'm sure he's fine."

"You don't understand," the rancher divulged. "Johnny would be the one to leave, he would walk out the door and come back when he thought I'd cooled off. But... Scott....he just goes to his room." Murdoch pushed the plate away. "He's never taken off like this before!"

"Maybe he's never had reason before," Travis suggested quietly. "You want to talk about it?"

"Scott wired Harlan Garret for money," Murdoch spit out. "After I ordered him not to, he went and asked him anyway."

"Murdoch," Travis began cautiously. "Don't you think Scott is a little old for you to tell him what he can't do?"

"But..." the gray-haired man sputtered. "I don't want one cent of that man's money."

"Did Scott say it was for you?" his host questioned.

"Well...no," Murdoch admitted. "But..."

"Is it possible that your son wanted it for himself?" the sandy-haired man asked. "Teresa told me over breakfast that Scott has funds of his own in Boston. Maybe it wasn't Harlan's money at all."

"It was more than just the money!" the rancher exclaimed. "He left his wallet at the hotel Sunday and it was stolen in the robbery. That is totally irresponsible."

"You know who you sound like?" Travis responded seriously. "Your father."

"What!" Murdoch said shocked.

"I remember a young man who got paid on a Friday night and was robbed on his way home from work." Travis grinned. "I believe if I'm right, he got conned into an alley by a pretty young woman only to get knocked over the head by her partner."

"I see your point, Travis." Murdoch murmured.

"Your father tanned your hide but good," his host recalled. "Scott is a responsible son, but even he can make mistakes."

"I've been so stupid," the rancher sighed. "I just got crazy thinking about Harlan's money and when he said he'd left his wallet I...I just blew."

"I understand Scott did his own share of hollering," Travis commented. "I'm sure he has regrets also."

"Scott probably spent half the night beating himself up," Murdoch said solemnly, shaking his head. "We've never talked about his life in Boston. I sometimes wonder how he can stay so calm and cool."

"Well, I think you've learned he's got a bit more of the old man in him than you thought," Travis laughed. "From what my cook said you could have heard you two for a block."

"I've never seen him like that," Murdoch grinned. "It's kind of nice to see Scott lose his cool, for a while there I thought there was more Garrett in him than Lancer."

"He's a good young man," the sandy-haired man observed. "You have a lot to be proud of."

"I can't take credit for who he is," Murdoch replied honestly. "You know I didn't raise him."

"No, you didn't," Travis agreed. "But as I tried to tell you the other day. Scott is not the person he is because Harlan Garrett raised him. Your son is the person he is because that's who he chose to be. I see more of you in him than I see of Garrett. Yes, he's polite and has a Boston manner at times, but his personality is all Lancer."

"You really think so?" Murdoch said, lifting his eyebrows. "I'm not very patient and no one has ever called me a peacemaker."

"No, but he reminds me of Ian, who stood between your father and you many times," his host reminded him.

"You're right," Murdoch exclaimed. "He is like Ian."

"Scott seems to be the best of both," Travis assessed. "He's got some fine Boston breeding in him but he's also got the toughness of a Lancer."

"You're right, again," Murdoch conceded. "How could I have been so blind?"

"Do yourself a favor," his old friend advised. "Stop looking at him as the son Harlan raised and look at him as your son, Scott Lancer."

Murdoch sighed and nodded without saying another word. He drained his cup and stood up. "I think I'll go see if I can find him."

"Murdoch," Travis shook his head. "Scott's a man now, not a child. How many times did you take off only to show up the next day? Give it another hour, Teresa will be home and if he's not here I'll go with you to look for him."

"Okay," Murdoch grumbled. "But only until then."

"In the meantime," the investor proposed. "I promised your son I'd let him read the letters Catherine sent to Bessie when you moved out west. I brought the boxes down and found some old photos of her in them. I thought maybe you would like to see them also."

"Yes," Murdoch replied quietly. "I would."


Teresa hung up her coat on the rack, surprised to hear laughter coming from the parlor. She quietly walked over and looked in. Travis and Murdoch were sitting on the floor looking through a box with pictures and letters in it.

"This picture was taken just before we found out Catherine was pregnant with Scott," Murdoch said quietly.

"I remember how excited Bessie was," Travis recalled a faraway look in his eyes. "She started knitting a baby outfit immediately.

"I still have that in a trunk at home," the rancher recalled. "Scott never got to wear it."

"Give it to him for when he has his first born," the sandy-haired man suggested.

"Speaking of Scott," Murdoch groaned as he stood up. "I can't wait any longer. I have to go find him."

"Scott isn't coming home until tomorrow," Teresa spoke up from the doorway.

"You saw him?" Murdoch exclaimed.

"No," Teresa explained, walking in the room. "He sent a message to me at church that he was fine and would be back tomorrow."

"A message?" Murdoch frowned. "With who?"

"She had auburn hair," Teresa smiled. "She said her name was Amanda and that Travis would vouch for her."

"Amanda Beaumont," their host confirmed. "Scott's fine if he's with the Beaumont's. Her uncle is the mayor of Denver."

"Murdoch," Teresa pleaded. "Don't get angry with Scott, I think he-"

"Teresa," Murdoch interrupted, eyes twinkling. "Scott's a big boy, he can take care of himself." He turned to Travis. "Didn't you say something about a ham and mashed potatoes?"

"Okay, Travis," Teresa demanded, hands on her hips. "Who is this man and what have you done with Murdoch Lancer?"

Travis and Murdoch laughed as the three of them headed to the dining room. Travis hoped his friend gave some serious thought to his advice. The investor smiled as he thought of Scott with Amanda. He had a feeling, however, that his old friend would not be smiling if he knew that his son and Miss Beaumont were probably not doing anything respectful at all. The young woman kept her affairs discreet, but Travis had not been above paying her a visit a time or two himself, and he had to say one thing – Scott Lancer had very good taste.

Lancer -

It was already afternoon when Johnny stood up in his stirrups and glanced over to where Cipriano was waiting on the other side of the herd. The segundo raised his hand to let the younger man know that the men on the far side of the herd were ready. With a wave of his hat, Johnny signaled the start of the drive south. Amidst resounding bellows and yells, men, equine,
and bovine started moving, stirring up the dust with over eighty thousand hooves.

Johnny forced himself to keep his mind on the animals trudging along to his right. He did not want to think about the graves that had been dug earlier that morning, of the wooden boxes being lowered into the ground, of the pain that was crushing his soul. It was easier to concentrate on the cattle, on the job to be done, on anything but what he had lost.

One of the cows decided to make a break for it, but Barranca was right on the rebellious bovine's trail, without Johnny even having to make a move.
Normally, Johnny, got annoyed at having to chase stupid animals that could not seem to stay together, when at any other time the cows wouldn't care less about staying next to each other. On this day, however, Johnny looked forward to each and every chase, and the diversions they provided.

Cipriano had tried to get him to put off moving the herd until the following day, but Johnny had stubbornly refused. He had promised Murdoch the herd would be moved by the end of the day, and that's the way it was going to be. He didn't care that if things had gone as planned, the herd would only be halfway to the south range when his father and brother got back to the ranch, and father and brother would have been with him by now.

They would not be there, though. Because of that damnable storm, Johnny had the herd to himself, the ranch to himself, and the upcoming holidays to himself. He shuddered. He had spent so many days alone before returning to the home he had never remembered having, and had reveled in the knowledge that he would never be alone again - but here he was; no father, no brother, no sister. He was alone, again.

*** *** *** ***

"We'll have to slow 'em up over the next mile or so," Johnny said to Cipriano as they surveyed the herd that was approaching them from the north.

"Sí," Cipriano agreed.

The herd was approaching the bridge that would take them over the river and onto the winter range. Weeks before, Johnny and Scott had both been told by Murdoch and Cipriano that the cattle would have to be driven over the bottle-neck at the bridge in stages, otherwise the stupid animals would try to go off to the side, sliding down the embankment and into the river.

The problem was not so much that the river was the deep or the current was that forceful this time of year; those would be the concerns during the spring when they were driven off the winter range. For now, having the cattle down in the riverbed - it was getting the cattle up the embankment on the other side that was the monumental chore. Each animal had to be roped and hauled out of the riverbed, a task made more difficult because instead of dead weight, the beeves would insist on trying to 'help'.

The vaqueros managing the herd were a mixture of the experienced and inexperienced. Some had remained loyal to Lancer during the ordeal with Pardee, some of the others had left, reluctantly, but they had their families to think of; all the others were new to Lancer and, like Johnny, were making this trek for the first time. They were all good men and for that Johnny was grateful.

No matter how hard he tried, though, the images of those boxes being lowered into the ground would not go away. His ears rang with the sound of dirt falling onto the wooden lids, first with a resounding hollowness, then becoming more solid as the holes were slowly filled. Cipriano and Maria had been there for him, but there was nothing they could do to ease his pain. What's done was done; there was nothing anyone could do to change what was.

For the next six hours Johnny choked down dust as he helped guard the approach to the bridge. The men were positioned in two rows, one on the right and one on the left, forming a funnel pattern to keep the cattle moving forward and over the bridge. It was slow, dirty work, but necessary to keep the cattle moving onto the south range instead of taking a bath in the river below.

It was well past sundown and there was still a couple hundred head to get across the bridge, but thanks to a full moon the task would still be finished that day. The men were loyal and would remain until the job was done. Things were going well, and that had Johnny's nerves on edge, though, he had managed to put his personal feelings aside, shoving them behind the mantle of Johnny Madrid. He had just gotten to the point where he felt Johnny Lancer had become more of the real him than Madrid was, but right now all he wanted was to get rid of the pain; if that meant reverting back to his old ways, so be it.

Suddenly, a few ornery steers decided that they had been well behaved for long enough. The animals headed for the small gap between Johnny and Frank. The two men worked well together, and easily handled the attempted break. Unfortunately, a couple other restless animals got the same idea, and within seconds most of the cattle still on the north side of the bank were on the move.

The animals crowded forward as they were rebuffed by cowboys and cowponies went into action, beginning the age-old dance that had been perfected over the years as man kept animal as domesticated beasts. The dust that had been choking earlier was now blinding, and the occasional disgruntled bellow was now a deafening cadence of frightened beef.

Panic took over, animals stampeded, and then there was the earsplitting crackle of wood splintering and the bellows took on pitch of animalistic terror. Within minutes of the first sign of trouble, it was all over – the bridge had collapsed and there were at least fifty head of cattle down in the river, some moving around, others languishing in the cold waters as broken limbs made it impossible to get up.

Johnny watched the languishing bovines with a growing sense of anger. "Cipriano!" he yelled. "What the hell happened?!"

The old vaquero pulled his mount to a halt, his own horse balking as Barranca pranced nervously under Johnny's heavy hand. "Juanito, the herd spooked. There was no reason."

"Damn it!" Johnny motioned towards the riverbed and the cattle. "They didn't do that on their own." With angry, jerky movements, Johnny tied off his rope to the saddle horn and then moved Barranca over closer to the edge of the embankment. After dismounting, he gave the rope a tight tug, before beginning the descent. He ignored Cipriano's calls from above. His mind was on one thing and one thing only - putting an end to this problem.

Once his feet were back on solid ground, Johnny pulled his gun from his holster and headed for the river. He pushed his way passed any of the animals that were on their feet, wading out into the cold water to reach those that were beyond help. His revolver was emptied as the suffering beasts were put out of their misery. He reloaded twice before the job was done, and then yelled up the embankment for someone to throw a rope.

He did not know who complied with his order and did not care, either. One after another, he roped the water-logged cattle, letting the other men drag the bellowing steers up to the dry ground. In his mind, all he could think of was that he had let a simple task turn into a disaster. If Murdoch had been there, the bridge would never have collapsed and not one of those stupid cows would have ended up in the river.

Tuesday, December 13, 1870:

Denver -

Scott stood in the doorway of the MacPherson home, unsure of exactly what kind of greeting he would receive. Undoubtedly, Murdoch would be extremely angry over his son's abrupt departure, not to mention the subsequent over-night absence. After their heated argument, Scott had needed some time to himself. He smiled as he briefly thought of the young woman whose company he had recently departed. Well, maybe not time all to himself, but definitely away from his father. He could feel some contentment that Amanda had agreed to let him escort her to the dance Saturday night at the mayor's house. This was something he was looking forward to...along with the festivities that would come afterwards.

The blond entered the foyer and walked over to the parlor. He stood in the doorway, neither being greeted nor blasted. He spied his father sitting in a chair by the window; the sound of his snoring brought a sigh of relief from Scott. That Murdoch was sleeping was a good sign; his father had been known to nearly wear a hole through the floor with his incessant pacing whenever he was troubled or upset.

A hand on his shoulder startled Scott and he jerked around. Travis had walked up so quietly that Scott had not heard his approach.

"Your father's been sitting in that chair since breakfast, just waiting for you to get back," Travis whispered.

"He's probably been trying to decide whether to strangle me with his bare hands," Scott said with a nervous grin. "Or to shoot me."

"You'll work it out," the sandy-haired man said with confident assurance. Both men looked up when Teresa came down the stairs.

"Scott, you're back!" she exclaimed happily, and gave her brother a hug.

"I'm sorry, Teresa. I shouldn't have run out like that," Scott apologized for worrying her unnecessarily. This fight was between him and Murdoch; Teresa should not have to shoulder any of the burden the two men's dispute. "I let my anger get the best of me."

"You came back. That's what counts," the young woman replied with a grateful smile.

"Are you ready to go, Teresa?" Travis inquired.

"Yes," Teresa answered, turning to Scott. "Mr. MacPherson is taking me shopping. He said he used to take his daughter all the time, and knows all the best places."

"Have a good time," Scott said sincerely. He was happy to know that Teresa was having some semblance of a good time, as he was also relieved there would be no one there to witness the discussion between him in Murdoch. It had the potential to get very ugly.

"We'll be back before dinner," Travis informed him as they walked out the door. He paused and looked back at the young Lancer. "It will be okay, Scott."

Scott nodded and watched the two of them as they walked down the sidewalk. Once they had turned the corner, he shut the door quietly and walked into the living room, and made himself at home on the sofa to wait for his father to wake up. While he waited, he watched his father, wondering as he did at time, if Murdoch had any regrets about offering him a share of the ranch.

There had been a definite period of adjustment for the Boston gentleman, and for a while, even something as simple as roping a calf had seemed like an unattainable goal. He had even come to the point where he had seriously considered whether he should stay in California, and if he really belonged at Lancer. Scott clearly remembered the night he had made his decision.

He had spent a lousy day out on the range, finding himself in a position he had never been in before; back east he had excelled at everything he set out to do, but ranching was proving more difficult than he had ever imagined. After dinner, he had wandered out on the veranda with a glass of wine in hand, seeking the solitude as he contemplated this most important decision.

He sat on the stone wall, absently swinging his feet from side to side. After a few minutes, he had realized that he was not alone; to his left, leaning against one of the support pillars, was his new-discovered brother. Johnny had just been watching him, but as soon as their gazes locked, Johnny had walked over and sat on the ground. Leaning back against the wall, he had very softly asked what was wrong.

Scott had not answered. His brother was a stranger. He did not want to admit his weaknesses to anyone, let alone someone he barely knew. Then the former gunfighter had thrown him totally off guard by asking, point-blank, if Scott intended to stick it out at Lancer, or if he was going to be headed back for Boston.

This was the very heart of Scott's turmoil, but he did not have any answer except that he was so discouraged he wanted to pack his bags and head east on the next train. That was the last thing he was going to tell his brother, though. Then Johnny had said the one thing that had made up his mind; Johnny wanted him to stay and would do anything to help Scott adapt to his new lifestyle.

Scott had been stunned, to say the least. When he asked Johnny why, Johnny had simply shrugged. Then he said almost to softly to hear, 'we've lost enough years.' In that moment, Scott had seen an all too familiar longing in his younger brother's eyes; the same look he envisioned in himself when he ad dreamed of life with his father and a sibling or two. From that moment on, the older brother had been determined that he would stay at Lancer, and if it was the last thing he did, he would become a decent rancher. He had accomplished that goal with some guidance from his brother and a lot of his own determination.

"Scott?" Murdoch blinked, stretching his arms as he sat forward. "When did you come in?"

"I arrived a few minutes ago," Scott answered quietly. "Teresa and Travis went shopping. They'll be back later." His father nodded.

"Son, I think we're overdue for a talk."

Murdoch faltered when he spoke and Scott wondered if his father really knew where to begin, let alone wanted to start the conversation they needed to have.

"I'm just not sure where to start."

"Do you regret asking me to come to Lancer?" Scott asked the question that had been weighing on him. He looked directly at his father; he needed to be sure he believed the answer.

"No!" Murdoch exclaimed. "Not for one moment."

"I wondered," Scott admitted. "I had some problems adjusting in the beginning and I know you have to see some of my grandfather in me."

"I do," Murdoch agreed, nodding his head. "I look at you and I see Harlan raising you, instructing you." The gray-haired man stood, walking over to look out the window. "Sometimes I wonder if there's any Lancer in you."

"What did you expect?" Scott said harshly. "He raised me." The blond-haired Lancer winced at his cold words. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded."

"Yes you did," Murdoch disagreed. "And no one knows better than me that I deserve it, that I have no right to expect there to be any of my characteristics in you."

"It might help if I knew why," Scott pointed out. "For twenty-five years I've heard only my grandfather's side of why you left me. Don't you think it's time I heard yours, too?" The young Lancer stared at his father's back with eyes that begged for answers that could only come from this man.

"I...it was a hard time, Scott." Murdoch sighed, turning he once more sat down across from his son. "Your mother was gone. By the time I got to Carterville, Harlan had left and was well on the way back to Boston with you."

The blond-haired young man looked into his father's pain filled eyes; he could see the truth staring back at him.

"I went back to Lancer. I swear, Son, I was going to go after you, but..."

"But what?" Scott encouraged him to continue.

"I got a telegram from Harlan," his father stammered. "He made a convincing argument to let you stay in Boston until things had settled at the ranch." Scott could see his father was struggling to find the right words. "I...before I knew it, I was married to Maria and we were expecting Johnny. I wasn't there when you were born. I didn't want to make the same mistake twice."

"It took almost twenty-five years for you to contact me," Scott stressed, getting to the heart of the matter. "All I want to know is why?"

"I came for you, Scott," Murdoch whispered. "It was your fifth birthday. There were balloons, lots of children playing, and there you were, all dressed up in your Sunday best."

The young rancher saw the wetness in his father's eyes. "You did?" Scott was stunned. "Grandfather never mentioned a visit."

"I was there," Murdoch reiterated adamantly.

"What happened?" Scott asked, anxious to hear Murdoch's reply.

"Harlan reminded me that he was a very wealthy man," the gray-haired man growled as the memories came back from the darkest recesses of his mind, where they had been banished for too many years. "He didn't threaten me. Instead, he made it plain that if I tried to take you, he would drag you through the courts. I couldn't take the chance that he didn't mean it."

Scott sat there, taking in the words his father had just said. His grandfather's version, though similar in some respects, was vastly different in others. All his life he had been told of a father who could not be bothered to raise his son, and most damning of all, had never once tried to contact him.

"Thank you for sharing this with me," Scott said in solemn gratitude. "You've answered a lot of questions; things I've needed to know for a very long time." The blond sat there a moment; collecting his thoughts he knew it was his turn.

"I should have told you about my wallet," Scott admitted uncomfortably. "I...I just didn't want you to think I was irresponsible."

"Well, I did react exactly the way you thought I would," Murdoch acknowledged with regret. " I'm going to work on my temper."

"It might help if you were a little more supportive of Johnny as well," Scott said dryly. "I don't know if you realize it or not, but you ride him pretty hard most of the time."

"I just want him to be responsible." Murdoch protested.

"He is," Scott declared. "Johnny does everything you ask of him and more, most days. Just give him some slack. Remember some of the things you told your friends about how proud you are of him. Telling him that every now and then wouldn't hurt, either."

"Okay," the gray-haired rancher nodded. "You're right, I just don't want him to leave."

"Then give him a reason to stay." Scott suggested in a tone that brooked no argument.

"I'll work on it," Murdoch promised. "I've realized I need to talk to him when I get home."

"Speaking of Johnny," Scott continued determinedly. He and Johnny had been discussing this for a few months, and this seemed as good a time as any to bring it up. "We believe that it is time that you let us make some decisions where the ranch is concerned."

"Son," Murdoch argued, "the two of you haven't been at Lancer long enough-"

"Johnny and I want to breed horses," Scott interrupted, persisting on getting his point across. "I know we've had this discussion before, but this is very important to Johnny." He paused a moment, staring at his father. "And it's important to me, too."

"Scott," his father protested. "We're in the cattle business, not horse breeding. I tried that with the palominos; it was marginally successful, at best."

"That was when you were alone," Scott countered. "There is no reason Lancer can't do both, now that Johnny and I can help share the load." Changing strategies, Scott asked bluntly, "Was your father pleased when you told him you were leaving Scotland to become a rancher in America."

"No. He was furious," Murdoch admitted sadly. "He thought I was wasting my life. That I would end up with nothing but broken dreams and empty pockets."

"Johnny and I have just come home, Murdoch," Scott replied softly. "We have dreams, too. We don't want to have to leave to fulfill them."

The look on Murdoch's face was full of fear, but there was understanding, too. "Okay," he reluctantly agreed. "Just make sure it's a money making operation."

"It will be, Sir." Scott stood up and smiled. "In fact, when I came back the other day, I wanted to tell you something. Instead, I think it would be better to show you."

"What?" Murdoch asked, puzzled.

"Get your coat," Scott encouraged his father with barely contained exuberance.

The two men left the sitting room and entered the hallway, where they put on their coats before heading out side. Murdoch followed as Scott led the way to Travis' stables.

"He's a beautiful horse, isn't he?" Scott asked his father as they approached the first stall in the barn.

"Magnificent," Murdoch said in awe. "I wish Johnny were here to see him."

Scott hesitated, still nervous of his father's reaction. "Johnny will see him; when we get home." Murdoch raised his eyebrows and Scott continued, "He's my Christmas present to Johnny."

"Scott!" Murdoch smiled, both surprised and delighted. "Your brother is going to love him. This is the perfect present."

"He's going to be our first breeding stallion," Scott explained. "I have three mares coming in the spring."

"They must have cost you a small fortune," his father frowned.

"I used some of the money grandfather sent me as a down payment," Scott divulged without any guilt. "And I've made arrangements for payments with Mr. Mulligan. Johnny and I have been talking about this for a while. He's not aware of my plans to get a stallion on this trip, but we've been discussing the details of the breeding program for a few months."

"You realize that this will occupy a lot of your time. Both you and Johnny," Murdoch warned him. "You'll still have your duties to the ranch."

"We've discussed that, Sir. We're willing to put in the extra hours. Then, with the profits, we can hire men to help with the horses, which will leave us both freer to be part of the management of both operations. "Don't worry," Scott laughed. "Johnny and I will still make sure your babies are taken care of!"

"My babies?" Murdoch frowned.

"The cows," Scott replied. His father blinked at him and they both laughed. Murdoch put his arm around his son's shoulder and they walked back towards the house. The blond was relieved that they had managed to clear the air. Now, if they could only find a way to get back home in time for Christmas, everything would be perfect.


Lancer -

"How many?" Johnny asked curtly.

Cipriano shifted in the seat in front of the massive oak desk. After taking a deep breath, he said, "Twenty-four."

Twenty-four. The sound of Cipriano's voice echoed in Johnny's head. Twenty-four. During he cattle drive to Sacramento back in the fall, five head of cattle had been lost during a rough river crossing. Five, and Murdoch had been furious. Johnny had lost nearly five times that many on what should have been an easy trip from one end of the ranch to the other.

"I will pull some men to start gathering the timbers-"

"No!" Johnny barked. His sudden surge of anger startled Johnny, and if Cipriano's expression was any indication, the older man was just as unnerved.

"Juanito, the bridge must be-"

"It will be," Johnny said firmly, but with control. Twenty-four. The number continued to resound in his ears, only this time it was his father's voice, heavy with disappointment, that echoed in his head.


That one word, full of worry and concern, broke into Johnny's thoughts. "Leave the men where they are," Johnny ordered. "I'm going to town. When I get back we'll discuss the bridge situation."

Confusion radiated off the older man, but he complied with a nod and a respectful, "Sí." Recognizing his dismissal, Cipriano left to carry out his orders.

As soon as he was alone, Johnny reached down and pulled the knife from his boot. Wedging the tip of the blade in the gap between the wooden pieces, he broke open the lock on the bottom desk drawer. Murdoch would disapprove, no doubt; then again, he would be aghast by what Johnny had in mind, anyway.

Johnny dug around, flipping past the Pinkerton report with his name on it; he had already read it many months before. Why Murdoch even kept it with its inaccuracies that were more abundant than truths, Johnny didn't know, nor did he care. He found what he was looking for, and removed the skimpy folder from where it had been stashed after Murdoch's disagreement with Scott over its feasibility. At the time, Scott had bowed to Murdoch's decision. Now, however, Johnny was not. Bottom line, he had more faith in Scott than he did their father.

He removed the pages of the report and spread them out over the desk, recalling the heated debated they had sparked, only to end with their banishment into the 'bottom drawer'. Johnny had still been recovering from Pardee's bullet, though, in Johnny's mind he was more than fit for work. Sam and Murdoch had seen things differently, though, so Johnny had taken to
sneaking out of his room whenever he thought he could get away with it without being caught.

On that particular morning, he had fallen asleep in the chair by the fireplace. He would have been caught for sure, if his father and brother had not been to busy arguing during breakfast to notice him sitting in the chair by the fireplace. Debating, Scott had corrected him later when Johnny had admitted to his transgression. Whatever it was called, Johnny had listened from his place around the corner, as Scott had made a very determined effort to enlighten the stubborn Scotsman.

From what Johnny had gathered, the bridge to the south pasture had been damaged by the large amount of debris that nearly clogged the river during the spring run off from the mountain snows. It was needing to be repaired before the herd could be moved onto the summer range. When Murdoch had informed the Harvard educated young man that this particular structure was always a source of concern, Scott had suggested that an alternative design could quite possibly put an end to the constant rebuilding and repairs.

Murdoch had dug in his heels, and the 'debate was on'. Calmly and rationally, Scott had presented his arguments, countering Murdoch's every objection with, what had sounded like to Johnny, very convincing counter-arguments. Johnny recalled how he had marveled at his brother's calm manner, even when his suggestions seemed to be dismissed out of hand. Eventually, though, even Scott's Boston manners were stretched to the limit. Angry words were exchanged, but in the end it came down to only one thing - Murdoch called the tune.

Later that night, when Scott had come to see Johnny, he had still been irritated. Johnny had confessed to being out of bed and to not making his presence known to the other two men. Scott had rebuked him rather soundly, but to Johnny's surprise, most of his brother's irritation was centered on the former offense, rather than the latter.

When the former Army soldier had finished dressing Johnny down for not taking care of himself, the anger had all but died, and only the frustration reminded. Scott had been convinced that the substantial investment in a metal bridge would more than pay for itself in a few years, what with the costs of the constant repairs to the less reliable wooden structure.

At that time, Johnny's inability to accurately evaluate the more technical aspects of Scott's arguments had kept in silent. In the months since those tenuous first days, while his knowledge of such things had not changed, his respect for his brother's intellect and common sense had increased ten-fold. That Scott had felt so strongly about the possibilities that he had actually
contracted an engineer to draw up some plans was enough to convince Johnny. Murdoch, however, had stuck to his guns, and in the end, the report had been filed away as something 'too cost ineffective' to consider.

With that report in hand, Johnny headed for town.

*** *** *** ***

"I've already wired Mr. Demont in San Francisco, and he will be arriving in a couple of days. What I need from you, Mr. Sinclair, is this financial letter he mentions in his wire."

Mr. Sinclair, the President of the Green River Bank, studied the wire that Johnny had presented to him upon his arrival. After a few moments, the banker looked up, his dark eyes peering intently over the wire-rimmed glasses that were perched halfway down his nose. "Johnny, I can provide a statement of financial standing with no problem. Lancer has more than enough assets to cover the amount of this proposal."

Johnny felt his anger growing. "But?" he clipped.

The banker visibly flinched at the chill carried in that one-word question. "But," he began a bit nervously, before his confidence returned. "Johnny, Murdoch and I discussed this idea of Scott's last summer, as a promise to Scott. While the idea seems promising, if I remember correctly, your father was very much against making such an investment."

"Do you see Murdoch Lancer here?!" Johnny practically yelled as he came up out of his seat and leaned over the banker's desk. "Well, I don't, and I'm saying that I think it's a good idea. One that Lancer will be giving a shot."

Mr. Sinclair's face had turned a ghostly shade of white. He would no longer meet Johnny's icy glare, and the previous bravado had all but died. "Johnny, I know how hard-"

"You don't know squat!" Johnny yelled, attracting the attention of the other bank patrons, who began murmuring among themselves. "Are you going to prepare that letter thing, or do you want me to take Lancer's business elsewhere?"

The threat in Johnny's voice and stance was undeniable. "There's not talking you out of this?" Mr. Sinclair asked with remarkable calm.

"No." Johnny answered bluntly.

The banker hesitated for just a moment, then nodded his head. "I'll prepare the statement, Johnny. I'll have it ready for your engineer by the time he arrives."

"Thank you." Although Johnny did shake the man's hand, he was still upset as he stalked out of the bank. He purposely ignored the curious and sympathetic stares of those left standing in his wake. Not even the sound of Val's voice calling after him was enough to stop his departure. He pulled the reins free from the hitching rail and vaulted into the saddle, spurring Barranca out of

Wednesday, December 14, 1870:

Denver -

The hearty laughter at the breakfast table was a welcome change to the tension of the past few days. Travis was relieved when he had returned to the house yesterday afternoon with Teresa to hear Murdoch and Scott laughing in the parlor.

He had an image in mind of his old friend and Scott sitting on the floor, each with a drink in their hand. They had been looking through the pictures and reading the letters that Catherine had sent to Bessie so long ago. At first too stunned to move, he and Teresa had then attempted to back out of the room, neither wanting to interrupt this rare opportunity for father and son. However, before they could make their escape, Murdoch had glanced up and called them in, inviting them to join in on the walk down memory lane.

Travis so wished that Catherine and Bessie could be here now. It had been a little over five years since he lost his wife, and yet, at times like these, it still seemed like just yesterday. Their youngest son, Samuel had been away at college and his wife had been on her way home from visiting him when the stage she was on had overturned, and Bessie had not survived.

He had thought his life was over. In despair, he had gone out and gotten roaring drunk, a state in which he stayed for nearly a week. It had been his sons who had sobered him up, and then lit into him for daring to let their mother down.

The proud father missed his children dearly. Murray was a banker in New York, and Stephen took after his father, ironically settling in Boston. Rachel, his only daughter, was married to a minister and living in St. Louis. Each of his children had invited him to spend the holidays with them, but he knew his old friend was coming to town too close to the holidays for him to get away. Travis had really wanted to see Murdoch, and renew a friendship that both had let slip away. Instead, he had promised his children when spring came he would take a very long vacation and spend a few weeks visiting with each of them.

"Travis? Travis?" Murdoch repeated, frowning. "Are you okay?"

"Yes..." The memories of his children causing him to faltered for a moment. "I'm fine." He looked up Scott and Teresa, his best smile firmly in place. "So what are your plans for the day?"

"I'm going shopping with Alicia Ferguson," Teresa said quietly. "She invited me to stay the night at their house, if that's okay."

"That's fine," Murdoch nodded. "Looks like it will be just us men around here tonight."

"What about the mayor's party?" Scott looked and sounded totally confused.

"That isn't until Saturday, Scott," Travis replied smoothly, but something about his crafty smile said the he was well aware of where Scott's mind had been. Denver wasn't a small town, but Travis had a few connections. "Unfortunately, I have a business dinner to attend."

"Well, Scott, it looks like it will be just you and me," Murdoch responded with enthusiasm. "Why don't we give Travis' cook a night off and go out to eat?"
"Sounds great, Murdoch," Scott replied quickly, his eyes directed at the food on his plate.

"If you had other plans..." Murdoch began, his words trailing off.

Scott smiled slightly. "Nothing I can't change."

"If you're sure," Murdoch said doubtfully.

"It's fine, Murdoch." Scott assured him. Travis smiled at the twinkle in the young man's eyes. "Besides, I want to see if you start taking your shirt off."

"If he starts singing, run for cover," Travis warned, then burst out laughing.

Murdoch moaned, and Scott and Teresa joined their host in his laughter. Travis winked at Teresa; they had hoped that if they were both busy, Scott and Murdoch would have another opportunity to spend some time together. It had been a terrible turn of events that had separated his friend from his sons, and the investor wanted to do what he could to help them along the way.


"Amanda," Scott whispered, a pink flush on his face as he stood in the dress shop. "Can I talk to you a minute."

"Scott!" the auburn-haired beauty's eyes lit up. "I wasn't expecting you so soon."

"Well, I think...well, I seem to have made a mistake," Scott stammered, his hat in his hand, he was looking around and swore he heard someone giggle. "About the mayor's dance."

Amanda chuckled. "You mean the dance that isn't until Saturday night?" she asked with a grin.

Scott could not help but be amused that everyone but him seemed to be in on the secret. "You knew that when I asked you that I had the wrong date. Why didn't you correct me?"

Amanda's smile turned feral. "I had other things on my mind," she answered with a seductive tilt of her head. "So did you, if I'm remembering corrected. Besides I was hoping to get a dinner invitation out of you to make it up to me."

The heat rose in Scott's cheeks, but it was a good feeling. There were not many women he had encountered who could flirt with such grace. "Yes, well, I would really love to take you to dinner, but I hope you'll forgive me. I'm going to have to take a rain check on that dinner."

"You'll make it up to me?" Amanda purred, smiling seductively.

"Absolutely," Scott promised. "Are you free tomorrow?"

"Hmmm," the young woman paused to tease him. "Yes, tomorrow will be fine."  
"There is one thing though," she said more seriously.

"Yes?" Scott asked.

"I still need a date for my Uncle's dance on Saturday."

"It would be my honor to escort you," Scott replied happily. "In the meantime, I will pick you up for dinner tomorrow night, at five o'clock." He glanced around the room, realizing for the first time exactly where he was - standing between two racks of women's undergarments "I better be going. Thanks for being so understanding."

"You're worth it, Scott," Amanda murmured. She watched as the young blond left the store.


"Scott, I'm having a hard time finding a gift for Teresa," Murdoch sighed in frustration as the two men sat enjoy an after dinner drink.

At his father's request, Scott had chosen where to dine for the evening. It was in an out of the way part of town, where they could eat and then spend some time talking, away from the crowds and friends who were sometimes a bit too sympathetic towards the stranded family's plight.

"I bought her the dress," Scott reminded him. "And I got tickets for a play for this Friday." The younger Lancer took a drink of his brandy, sighing. "You're the one I'm having the problem with."

"You don't have to buy me anything," Murdoch said seriously. "Just having you home is enough."

The mention of home brought a pang of sadness to Scott's heart. "I wonder what Johnny is doing? By now, he has to know by now we're not going to be home for Christmas."

"Fate seems determined to keep our family apart," Murdoch commented softly, but with a hint of bitterness. "I've racked my brain trying to find a way to get us home, but those mountains between us seem to be a insurmountable obstacle."

"At least Jelly is there," Scott said, trying to console his father. "And Cipriano and Maria. I know it's not the Christmas any of us wanted, but I'm just thankful that Johnny won't be totally alone."

"Jelly will see to it that your brother has a good Christmas," Murdoch smiled, but only slightly.

"If Johnny doesn't threaten to lock him up somewhere," Scott shook his head and grinned. "Jelly does tend to get a little carried away at times."

"For once," Murdoch murmured, "I hope he does."

"So do I," Scott agreed. "I'm just not sure that Johnny will share our sentiment."

They sat for a few minutes, both lost in their own thoughts. "Being here in Denver reminds me a little of Boston." Scott admitted, swirling the liquid in his glass. "There would be one party after another for at least two weeks before Christmas, not to mention sleigh rides and other wintry festivities."

"You must really miss it," Murdoch said quietly.

Scott looked up at his father, the sadness evident in his eyes. "Actually, I don't, not really. The parties were endless and became more of a chore, mostly because I was expected to attend the ones given by clients of Garrett Enterprises. I always felt like enjoying the season and being with friends was overshadowed by business agendas." With a disheartened sigh, Scott took another drink of his brandy. "Where I really want to be is home."

"Me too, Son." Murdoch agreed.

"Look at us," Scott grinned and shook his head. "Johnny would be laughing his head off at the way we're sitting around moping."

"You're right," Murdoch agreed, a grin crossing his face. "So, what are we going to do about it?"

"I'll be right back," Scott got up and walked over to the counter. He returned a few minutes later with a bottle of Tequila and a couple of glasses.

"Tequila, Scott?" Murdoch eyebrows rose; everyone back home knew that Scott did not like the taste of Tequila.

"It'll be okay," Scott assured him, sitting down. He poured them each a glass. He handed one to Murdoch and then raised his. "To Johnny."

"To Johnny," Murdoch agreed, both men drinking from the glasses. "I thought you hated Tequila."

"It is not my favorite," Scott admitted. "But somehow this feels right." He poured himself another shot. "You sticking with the scotch?"

"No," Murdoch shook his head, pushing his glass over. "You're right. Johnny can't be here, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy a few drinks his way."


Several hours later, Scott and Murdoch burst through the front door of Travis' house. Both men were still singing, though it sounded like the words were to different songs. The only reason they were on their feet was because they were leaning on each other.

"Shhhhh" Scott shushed his father loudly. "You're...you're gonna wake up...your friend...Davis."

"Travis," Murdoch corrected, but he did not sound too convinced himself.

"I'm already awake," Travis smiled, chuckling as he walked out of the parlor, coming to a stop in front of his inebriated guests. "I take it you two had a good time?"

"We had fun!" Murdoch announced drunkenly. "Scott and...I..." He lurched forward, and Travis grabbed him to keep him from falling. "You think you can make it to your room?" he asked Scott.

"Of course I can. I'm not drunk," Scott protested vehemently.

Travis laughed, but Scott was in better shape than the older Scotsman. Travis helped Murdoch up the stairs, while Scott followed behind...all the way into Murdoch's room.

Travis helped Murdoch onto the bed, then turned to the younger man. "This isn't your room, Scott. Yours is this way," he coaxed, helping the younger Lancer to his room and onto his bed.

"Night, Scott."

"Night," Scott mumbled. His host started to pull the door shut. "Travis," the young Lancer said softly.


"I didn't let him take his shirt off," Scott laughed softly. "Not that he didn't try."

Travis laughed as he shut the door; those two were going to have one hell of a hangover come morning.


Lancer -

The piercing shriek of the rooster's crowing woke Johnny with a start. His immediate reaction was to think that he had left the front door open again, and that the pesky bird had invaded the hacienda again. After blinking a few times to get the sleep out of his eyes, he looked over and saw that the front door was closed.

Another loud crow broke the morning peace and finished bringing Johnny to a full state of awake. It also reaffirmed that sound was coming from outside - specifically from right outside the large picture window behind him.

"Dang bird," he grumbled as he slowly rose from the leather chair. His back and neck muscles protested the movement, letting him know that it had been a mistake to fall asleep hunched over the oak desk. Wiggling his toes, he made his way towards the kitchen, thankful that he had at least take his boots off. At least his feet weren't giving him hell.

Socked feet padded their way across the cold wood flooring and into the only slightly warmer kitchen. It was still early, and Maria had not yet arrived. Johnny pumped a kettle full of water and got the coffee brewing. This was about all of the cooking he was allowed to do. Only Teresa was allowed full rein in what had been Maria's territory for well over ten years.

After turning his neck slowly a few times in an effort to loosen the stiff muscles, he looked down, noticing his very disheveled appearance. With a sigh, he realized that he was still wearing the same clothes from two day ago. His leather pants were stiff from the river water, but fortunately the same water had rinsed away most of the mud from his battles with the ornery

He couldn't help but wonder if maybe things would have gone more smoothly with Mr. Sinclair down at the bank if he had thought to change clothes after returning to the house in the early hours of the pervious morning. Maybe, but what did it really matter? Mr. Sinclair was doing as he was told. If he didn't like the way Johnny dressed, that was his problem.

"Buenos días, Juanito," Maria said cheerfully as she hurried through the door.

"Buenos días." Johnny returned the greeting, but his eyes were focused on the bundle of clean clothing that Maria was carrying in a large basket. "Any of those mine?" he asked, even though he could see a bit of his favorite salmon-colored shirt, and the gleam from one of the conchos from another pair of his Mexican pants.

"Sí," the older woman nodded as she checked the coffee on the stove. "I will put them in your room."

"I'll take 'em," Johnny hastily interceded. Despite the flurry of objections, within just a few minutes the basket was emptied of all Johnny's clothing. Maria's disproving scolds continued after she left the room, heading upstairs to put away the rest of the families clothing that had been dirty when they packed for the trip to Denver.

Johnny sighed. Seeing the baskets contents had reminded him of his family. For a brief moment the sense of loneliness threatened to overtake him, but he used every trick he knew to push it all aside. He couldn't think about them. Not now.

Returning to the great room, Johnny deposited all the clothes onto the end of the love seat, holding back only the items he intended to wear. Thankfully, there were some clean socks and drawers in the mix. Returning to the kitchen, he ducked into the pantry, shut the door, and quickly changed.

Leaving his dirty garments in a pile on the floor just outside the pantry door, he proceeded to help himself to a cup of the coffee that was just finished brewing, before retreating back to the great room. A shave was probably in order, but that task could wait for another day.

Steaming cup in hand, he sank back down into the leather desk chair and began going through the stack of mail. There was nothing that annoyed Murdoch more than having the mail stack up. He had started this task a couple of times, and hoped he could manage to get through it without interruption. He had tried once, before Jelly got that distressing telegram, and again when...

He still could not bring himself to think of his part in aiding at the scene of the train wreck. Each time he did, the memory of those blue-green eyes, blank with death, made his stomach churn. In his mind, those eyes had begun changing, taking on the color of dead eyes he had not seen, on face he would never see again.

A shaky hand reached out and grabbed the half-empty bottle of scotch that was still sitting on the corner of the desk. A large splash ended up in his coffee before the bottle was returned to the corner of the desk. He thought about getting up and putting it back into the liquor cabinet, but he didn't. That was Murdoch's cabinet, and was another reminder that he was here all alone.

He grimaced; this particular combination of liquor and coffee was not a pleasant one. After another large gulp, he returned to the task of the mail. He was nearly to the bottom of the stack when he picked up an envelope addressed to Murdoch from the Cattleman's Association in Stockton. However, it was what was underneath that caught Johnny's eye and caused him to lay the letter in his hand aside and reach for his coffee.

He took several gulps, then picked up the letter that had his heart pounding. It was addressed to him, and Pablo's name was scrawled in the upper left hand corner. That was all, just his name. He ripped open the envelope and pulled out the one sheet of paper.

It did not take long to read, and helped answer a few of Johnny's lingering questions. Pablo wrote that the rurales were on his trail and that he would be arriving sooner than he had told Johnny previously. It was not safe to stay in Mexico any longer, even with Novia so close to giving birth to their third child.

Most of the revolutionist that had not been caught had scattered, but a few were still trying to fight the lost cause. The rurales had not been pleased to have Johnny Madrid stolen away from them, and the fact that some of their own had been killed at the time had them even more anxious for revenge. Because of Pablo's association with Johnny, the rurales had become convinced that Pablo had been behind the escape.

Fleeing in the middle of the night, Pablo had taken his family east, towards the Gulf of Mexico. The border north of the small village where they had been hiding would be closely watched, so he intended to cross the border into the United States somewhere in Texas. They had crossed into Brownsville and then headed north. In Waco he had stopped long enough to mail this letter, hoping that it would reach Lancer first. He and his family continued north, heading for the railroad in Kansas City. From there they would take the train west.

"That explains how they ended up on a train from Denver," Johnny sighed.

He was still raging internally about the injustice of it all when he opened the next envelope. He should have listened to Murdoch; sometimes the mail contained important things. By the time he was finished reading the even shorter note, his anger had turned to pure rage.

"Juanito, breakfast," Maria called out from the kitchen.

Johnny ignored her, his mind seething. He did not even notice the front door open and Cipriano approach, stopping on the far side of the desk.

"The men are waiting for your orders."

Instead of answering, Johnny's fist impacted the hard wood between them with a loud bang. He surged to his feet, needing more than anything to move, but not knowing where to go. Cipriano was at his side before he could come to a decision.

"Juanito? What is it?" Concerned brown eyes stared intently at Johnny.

"Thieves!" Johnny spat. Reaching back across the desk, the most recently opened mail. His fist crushed the page into a ball and he threw it down at Cipriano's feet. "They're gone. They're all dead because of a bunch of stupid banditos who couldn't even get it right!"      

Thursday, December 15, 1870:

Denver -

It was late that afternoon when Scott entered the MacPherson home. He had not woken until almost lunchtime, a habit he had gotten into back in Boston after the war, but one that had left him when he started his new life at Lancer. Not that being in a big city was that much of an influence, it was just that it had been a long time since he had suffered from such a severe

He had to smile as he thought of the night before. He was hoping to have plenty of stories to tell Johnny when they got home, but his and Murdoch's unfettered night on the town was sure to top anything else that could happen. Not only had he and his father gotten totally inebriated; Murdoch also had ended up with a date for the dance on Saturday with none other than Rose Fitzgerald.

It had not taken long for them to finish off the bottle of tequila they had started drinking in honor of Johnny. Leaving the restaurant, they had headed down the street with the intent of going back to Travis'. That's when they ran into Rose Fitzgerald, her brother, and a few other people from the Cattlemen's convention who were also stranded in Denver until transportation was available to take them back west.  

There were a few rounds of grumblings over their mutual bad luck, but then Rose had mentioned the Mayor's party and asked if the Lancers would be attending. Scott had quickly assured her that he would be there, but that, unfortunately, Murdoch, as of yet, had no date for the event. The older woman pouted that she did not have an escort, either, and to Scott's amazement, his father had asked her to the dance. Although this was the outcome Scott had been ready to finagle, he had figured his father would require a little more 'encouragement' than just a pout.

Shortly afterwards, the Lancer men had parted company with their friends. The two men were once again on the way back to Travis' when Murdoch insisted that they stop for one more drink. Before Scott realized what was happening, Murdoch had grabbed his arm and then he found himself sitting on yet another bar stool. It was in this saloon that the young man had discovered, first hand, a totally different side of his father.

Murdoch ordered a bottle of scotch and downed the first glass with one swallow. While Scott poured him another drink, Murdoch began rambling about growing up in Scotland. The conversation continued to include his trip to America, and finally the words spilled from him about his love for two women, Catherine Garrett and Maria Avila. Even though Scott was well on his way to being nicely drunk, he listened with as much intent as he could muster. After the history was told, a few more drinks were downed, Murdoch proceeded to sing every Scottish song he knew, until finally the blond-haired young man had convinced him it was time to head home.

Still chuckling over the sight he was certain that he would never be able to adequately describe to his brother, Scott headed for his room. He needed to take a bath and change for his date with Amanda. Scott smiled at the thought of the delectable woman who could make him forget almost anything. He paused at the bottom of the stairs when he heard his name coming from Travis' office, and headed in that direction.

"Scott," Travis greeted him, looking up from his desk. "You look much better than your father does."

"That is not surprising, Sir. Murdoch out drank me two to one," Scott grinned back. "Is he still in bed?"

"No," the sandy haired man informed him. "He left a while ago. He is on a shopping mission to find something to get Teresa for Christmas."

"I have to find something for Murdoch, myself," Scott groaned as he sat down in the chair across from Travis. "The man is almost as hard to buy for as Johnny."

"Tell me about your brother," Travis requested. "I know his mother took him away from Murdoch when Johnny was just a baby and that he has just recently returned, but whenever his name is mentioned I get the feeling that father is hiding something."

"Johnny," Scott began. He was not quite sure he should be sharing his younger brother's history with this man, but if his host came out to visit them at Lancer, then the truth would soon be out. Johnny did advertise his past, but he did not hide it, either. "After Maria took him away, they moved a lot. Apparently, she was trying to stay one step ahead of our father and the detectives he hired. She seemed determined that he was not going to get Johnny back from her. Whether it was because she loved Johnny, or because she hated Murdoch so much, I can't say."

"That poor child," the devoted family man sympathized.

"Things went from bad to worse," Scott explained. "When my brother was about thirteen, Maria died." He paused, it still bothered him to think of his younger brother all alone at such a young age, and it angered him that it did not have to be that way. "Because of the lies Maria told about Murdoch, Johnny had no one to turn to. He turned to the only thing he could count on, his gun."

"But he was so young!" Travis said shocked.

"Yes, he was," Scott agreed. "Evidently, one of his many stepfather's had taught Johnny to shoot. Johnny was good." The blond paused for a moment reflecting on the first time he had seen his younger brother in action. "Johnny is like a work of art when he's shooting, he's that good."

"Murdoch is having problems with his past, isn't he?" Travis reflected. "That's why he hasn't talked much about him to me."

"My father tends to want to ignore Johnny's past," Scott replied frustrated. "He hopes that if no one brings it up that it will just go away. He can't see how much he's hurting Johnny by denying that part of Johnny's life. He may not have asked for the circumstances that made him who he is, but he won't apologize for them, either. Nor should he have to."

"No one can change who they are," his host remarked. "It sounds like your brother is a remarkable young man."

"He is," Scott said soberly. "But sometimes I think all Murdoch sees is Johnny Madrid."

"Madrid?" Travis' eyes were wide with shock. "I've heard of him."

"That was the name my brother went by back then," Scott frowned.

"I also heard that he died in Mexico."

"He almost did," Scott nodded, shuddering at the thought of just how close he had come to losing his brother before they had even met. "Murdoch sent the Pinkertons to try to find him. The agent got there just in time to save Johnny from a firing squad." Both men turned as they heard the front door shut.

"Hello!" Murdoch smiled, walking into the office. "I am finally done with my shopping!"

"That is good news, Sir. As for me, I have to go get ready for my date," Scott informed both men as he slipped out of the room. "See you two later," Scott called out over his shoulder as he resumed his journey upstairs to take a bath and get changed for his dinner with Amanda.


Teresa stood in the hallway, waiting for Murdoch and Travis to come downstairs. Their host had offered to take them out for dinner tonight as he had given his cook the night off. There was a knock on the door, and she opened it to find a very handsome young man stomping the snow off his feet.

"Hello," the young man greeted her with a pleasant smile. "Is my dad around?"

"Your dad?" Teresa voiced her confusion. Travis had told them his children would not be home for the holidays.

"I'm Murray," the young banker informed her smiling. "Travis is my father."

"Oh!" Teresa exclaimed and stepped to the side, feeling a bit silly for keeping Travis' son out in the cold. "Your father is going to be so excited!"

"I wasn't sure I would make it," Murray explained, his eyes sparkling with glee. "The weather between here and New York isn't the best, but I was determined to make it home."

"Murray!" Travis cried. The older gentleman hurried down the stairs, Murdoch trailing behind him. He hugged his oldest son, then stood back, looking at him with pure joy on his face. "How did you get here? I thought you couldn't make it this year?"

"I thought I'd surprise you," his son explained. "Consider it an early Christmas present."

"The best ever," his father assured him. He glanced at his old friend. "Oh, I want you to meet my guests. This is Murdoch Lancer and his ward, Teresa O'Brien." Travis turned to his guests. "This is my oldest son, Murray."

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Lancer," Murray said sincerely, shaking Murdoch's hand. "I've already had the pleasure of meeting Miss O'Brien." He kissed her hand and Teresa blushed. "Dad's talked a lot about you over the years, but I have to admit that I've always wanted to meet the man for whom I was named."

"Travis?" Murdoch looked questioningly at his old friend.

"His name is Murdoch," Travis explained. "We call him Murray for short."

"I'm honored," Murdoch said quietly.

"Well, Murray," Travis turned to his son. "We were just going out to dinner. I'll get someone to take your bags up to your room, and you can join us."

"That sounds great," Murray nodded. "I'm starved."


Teresa gazed around the restaurant, taking in its elegant trimmings when her eyes found the secluded table in the far corner. Scott was eating dinner with the same young woman that had brought her the note to church. She smiled to herself, thankful that her older brother could find a diversion to keep him from worrying about Johnny being alone for Christmas. Scott took his role as the older sibling very seriously, and she knew being separated from Johnny at Christmas had to be very hard on him. Especially since this was to have been their first Christmas together.

Suddenly, Teresa felt an intense longing for home. She had never been away from the ranch for this long, and never for such an important holiday. She had made so many plans for preparing the house for Christmas, but most of all she had wanted the family together. Even if they were stuck in Denver, having Johnny with them would have taken the sting away from being away from home. This was supposed to have been a very special Christmas, but instead it seemed to be a season of failures.

"A penny for your thoughts," Murray whispered to her while Murdoch and Travis were talking intently about something or another.

"I was thinking of Christmas, and how much I wish we could be home," Teresa whispered sadly.

"I'm sorry you can't get back," the gentleman sympathized. "My dad has been checking every day to see if there is any way to get you folks back in time."

"It feels so hopeless," Teresa woman confessed. She glanced once more in her brother's direction, finding some comfort in Scott's apparent happiness. When she turned back to the young man beside her, she saw that his gaze had followed hers.

"Someone you know?" he asked curiously.

"Yes," Teresa could not help but feel better. "That is Scott, Murdoch's oldest son." Feeling a bit guilty that she had brought a stranger's attention to Scott's private dinner, she turned back to Murray and said cheerfully, "Your father is so happy to have you home."

"Can you keep a secret?" A devious glimmer twinkled in his blue eyes.

"Yes," Teresa nodded, her previous downtrodden spirits lifting as she became part of a conspiracy.

"My brother and sister will arrive by the weekend," Murray told her.

"Travis is going to be so excited,' Teresa said softly. "Your family is very lucky."

"It has been a few years since we've all been together," the young man said sadly. "We grew up and our lives pulled us in different directions. We all decided it was important that we gave something back to Dad. He gave us so much, including the freedom to be who we want to be. Too many parents try to plan their children's lives for them, and then become bitter when they claim their lives as their own."

"I can't see your father ever being like that. He has such a special way with people," Teresa confessed. "He's even gotten Murdoch to see things I swore he'd never understand."

"That's dad," Murray nodded with pride. For a brief moment, son and ward watch father and guardian in silence. After a few minutes, Murray looked over at Teresa, "I don't mean to sound forward, but I was wondering if you would be willing to attend the mayor's party with me on Saturday night?"

"I would love to," Teresa smiled warmly at the handsome young man sitting next to her. Things were beginning to look up a bit. If only Johnny could be there, then the family would have a nearly perfect Christmas.


Lancer -

"What do you mean 'it's full'?" Johnny asked rhetorically. His back ached and pains shot through his neck and shoulders whenever he dared move his head, all courtesy of another night spent slumped over the large oak desk. This was one more headache that he did not need.

"She is not all the way full, but it will be soon," Cipriano corrected. The vaquero's face was tight with worry. "Lo siento, Juanito. Maria, she mentioned this to me last month. I was going to have the new one ready for your return from Denver."

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Ain't your fault, Cip," he said in a weary voice. "It needs doin', so we'll get it done."

As tired as he was, the persistent little voice in Johnny's head would not let up. It kept telling him that he had to keep going, that he had to prove that he was and always had been worthy of being part of the grand estancia, that his mother had not been right in taking him away, that he belonged, not just for the protection his gun could provide, but because he was that special kind of man that working this land took. "Get me a list."

Cipriano frowned. "There is no need for you to do this," he argued. "I can--"

"I said get me the list!" Johnny snapped harshly. He fell silent, instantly feeling the weight of guilt over treating his friend so badly. "I'll go to town for the supplies, Amigo," his voice contrite. He gave Cipriano a weak smile. He hated how the frustration building inside him was being taken out on those who were only trying to help, and he vowed to do better at controlling his outbursts. He was in charge. The problems were his, and they would stay his from now on. His men deserved no less. "Just keep the hands busy," he added softly.
"Sí." Cipriano nodded, but the lines of concern were still etched deep in his weathered skin. "Nothing will be go undone, Juanito. You are doing a fine job. Your padre, he would be proud."

"Twenty-four dead cows, a busted bridge, and an overflowing outhouse?" Johnny sighed. "I doubt it."

Cipriano touched his arm. "Juanito, there is nothing you could have done any different, nothing could have prevented any of this," the wizened vaquero insisted. "Even if el patrón had been the one, how is it he says, calling the tune."

There was some comfort in Cipriano's words, but Johnny still felt that he was failing, that even if Murdoch were faced with all that had happened, he would be unfazed would solve everything with that steadfast sense of confidence that always left Johnny feeling inadequate. "Get me that list of supplies well need for the new outhouse. Have José and Diego start digging the new one. Frank and Carl can spell them after dinner."

The older man's gray-haired head bobbed with approval. "Sí."

"Might as well check the bunkhouse outhouse, too," Johnny added. "If that one's close to being filled, we might as well get the new one dug. The supplies I'll keep for a few months, and we can cover the hole with that old barn door Murdoch's got stashed in the tool shed."

Cipriano nodded and then headed off to carry out Johnny's orders. He only took a few steps before turning back to face his boss. "Maria, she noticed you did not eat any dinner last night. She worries. She worries very loudly."

A slight grin pulled at Johnny's lips. It did not require too much of an imagination to know that even the Lancer segundo was not match for his wife's temper. "And you have to listen to it, is that right, Amigo?"

"Sí." Cipriano's expression turned hopeful. "A good breakfast would make her muy feliz."

Johnny sighed. "I think I can handle that for you, Compadre," Johnny lied. Thankfully, Cipriano believed him and departed with an air of accomplishment. Breakfast was the last thing Johnny wanted, and just the thought of trying to eat the enough to satisfy Maria's mothering nature had
his stomach rolling.

After entering the kitchen, he sat down at his regular seat at the table. Maria's gaze was full of disapproval, but she said nothing as she continued filling the plate in her hand. When she set it down in front of Johnny, it was laden down with more food than four men could eat.

Under her watchful eye, Johnny managed to choke down a few bites of the steak and eggs. "Muy bueno," he said with all the cheer he could muster. Maria's frown faded, and, apparently satisfied that Johnny would make up for the missed dinner, she left the kitchen to complete the rest of her
household chores.  

As soon as Johnny was sure that she would not be popping back in to check on him, Johnny stood up and carried his plate to the door. Once outside, he gave a low whistle and then scraped the remainder of his breakfast feast onto the ground. The last bit of egg had just hit the ground, when Lucille came bounding around the corner.

The normally affectionate black dog did not even give Johnny as second look before she practically dove into the unusually bountiful banquet. Johnny gave Teresa's dog a gratuitous pat on the back. "Just don't go telling Maria," he warned in a gentle voice. "She'll skin both of us." Empty plate in hand, he reentered the kitchen and deposited the dirty dish at his place at the table.

*** *** *** ***

By the time Johnny returned from town, supplies enough for two complete two-seat outhouses in tow, he was regretting not heeding Cipriano's suggestion that someone else could be sent after the supplies. Word spread fast in these parts, and by the time he had Buckwheat and Barley headed towards home, Johnny was angry all over again.

He was angry about the whispered words behind his back, angry about the naysayers who shook their heads in doubt at the young rancher, angry about that sympathetic expressions that only reminded him of the loss he had to forget.

Mrs. Baldemero had been the worst. Fortunately, Evan had wanted to save Johnny a trip to the other end of town, and had personally brought the telegram from the bridge engineer down to the general story. With Evan as a distraction, Johnny had been able to slip away from the weepy woman and make his get away.

That telegram was the first thing that had gone right in what seemed like forever. It was confirmation that Mr. Lions would be arriving the next day. He wanted to evaluate the site, and determine the best placement for the new span. After that was completed, the materials would be ordered and the men hired to complete the assignment. This was much more technical than building a wooden structure, and labor more skilled than Lancer could provide would be necessary.

Johnny had to admit that the cost would be high, but not as high as the cost could be if he did not do something more permanent. He was never more thankful when the dust had settled from the bridge collapse and all the men had been accounted for. It could very easily have been different if any of the vaqueros had been crossing the bridge when it fell into the river. Twenty-four head of cattle was bad enough, but even one man would have been too much.

Murdoch may not see it that way, but Johnny didn't care. Murdoch wasn't there. These men were his responsibility and he would not reward their loyalty by putting their lives in danger when it was not necessary.

*** *** *** ***

Late in the night, Johnny sat alone on the sofa in front of the fire. He felt a small niggling of guilt over another secret dinner Lucille had gobbled down with enthusiasm, but he knew if he had tried to eat anything, it would have just come back up anyway. He had no appetite at all, and the small portions of breakfast and dinner he had consumed in order to satisfy Maria had left his stomach feeling queasy and unsettled.

Tonight he sought solace not in Scott's brandy, but a very old friend of his own. The tequila was something familiar, something he knew so well that it was nearly a part of him. Looking down into the clear liquid, he watched it shifting gently from side to side. Each breath he took caused his hand to move ever so slightly, turning the glass into a cradle for the fiery brew.

The memories of the past came forward from the recesses of his mind, as they sometimes did when he was alone and feeling useless. This time it was the memory of his very first drink. He had been nine, and had snuck a drink from the abandoned glass of one of his mother's many men. He had gagged, nearly losing the dinner he had eaten a few hours before.

A few nights later, another opportunity presented itself. Determined to be able to drink like the men his mother sought out to take care of her, he boldly made another attempt to tame the manly drink. This time his gagging was more easily suppressed but his body had shuddered hard as he swallowed. By the time the nearly full glass was empty, the shudders had ceased.

He had set the glass down in the same spot, hoping that the strange man his mother had in her bedroom would not notice anything was amiss when he came out later. Johnny had stumbled a few times on the way to his own bed, but he felt like a man; he felt, for the first time, like he could be the one to take care of his mother, making it so that she did not have to let those big ugly men take her to bed in exchange for enough money to keep a roof over their head and food on the table anymore.

The next morning he had felt like he had been kicked in the head by Benito, the ornery mule down at the stables at the edge of town where he cleaned stalls for a peso or two. His mother had not scolded him, though. Instead, she had tended to him the loving care that only a mother could provide. She had not been happy, of this he had been certain, but she had accepted his confession with respect for his honesty.

A few years later, when he was fourteen or fifteen, wearing a gun that meant business and brazenly ordering glasses of tequila in any saloon he chose to enter, he had only bitter memories of that time. Even with his newfound manhood, his mother had still entertained her men, and later, would even allow them to do to Johnny as they pleased, just so they would not leave her. She would cry later, as she tended his battered body, telling him over and over how much she loved him.

She had not loved him. Not enough to stop the abuse, not enough to tell him the truth about his father; the father who could have been a refuge from the storm of life that Johnny had so desperately need. He still loved her, he always would, but could never forgive her.

Looking down at the empty glass in his hand, he wondered about Scott. When had his brother had his first drink? Was it served to him by his grandfather, or had he snuck it behind the old man's back? He had never asked, and now he regretted the lapse. Setting the glass aside, he sank down into the warm of the sofa cushions, and fell into a restless sleep filled with so many regrets of things that had gone undone.   

Friday, December 16, 1870:

Denver -

With only the moon to light his way, Scott slipped in through the parlor window, wincing as a small figurine fell off the end table and rolled on the floor. He had not intended to return until morning, but the early arrival of Amanda's Aunt Clarice had resulted in a quick retreat out of her bedroom window.

Once inside, the young man grinned as he sat down on the couch. It had been quite a while since he had found it necessary to sneak out of a beautiful woman's bedroom window. The last time it had been Barbara's bedroom, and a bellowing father instead of a totally oblivious aunt spurring him on. He remembered that night fondly. Not for the lost romance, but for the opportunity that had changed his whole life.

Earlier on that day, Scott had been arguing with his grandfather over his resignation from Garrett Enterprises. He could still see the determination written all over the gray-haired man's face, but no matter how sound the reasoning, Scott had not changed his mind.

The Harvard graduate had grown up knowing that he was the future heir and president of his grandfather's company. It was something that he had never questioned, that is, until he had returned from fighting in the War. On his first day back working in the office, he had known with absolute certainty that this was not the way he intended to spend the rest of his life.

When the Pinkerton agent had issued Murdoch's request, Scott could honestly say that he had no intention of responding. Too many years of hoping Murdoch would care enough to contact him, only to have his hopes dashed, had hardened his heart.

The next evening, however, his grandfather had met him at the door with the card in his hand, insisting that they needed to talk. Scott had told him there was nothing to talk about. That was when the gauntlet had been thrown down.

Harlan had forbid him from going to California; had stated that he would not allow it. That was the moment that his stubbornness had kicked in and for the first time he questioned whether or not he was doing the right thing in ignoring his father's request. This dilemma had kept him up all night, making him wonder about all the questions that had gone unanswered over the years, about a father who had not even cared enough about his own son to come for a visit or to even send a letter.

By the time the morning sun was beginning to peep over the windowsill, Scott had realized that he needed to make the trip. His hours of soul searching had left him with a deep need to know who his father was and to learn why he had ignored Scott for so long.

Scott had boldly and firmly informed his grandfather over breakfast of his decision. Amid a few curt words, the older gentleman had begrudgingly accepted that this was something that Scott felt he had to do. Even at the time, Scott had felt that his grandfather had given in only because he firmly believed that Scott would see Murdoch for the man he had been painted as over the years.

Over the next few days, Scott had made his travel plans, packed his bags and then headed west. To this day he felt a bit of guilt over one detail he had kept from his grandfather. Even at that time, before he had known anything of his father's problems or the partnership he would be offered, Scott knew there would be no returning to Boston to live.

In Boston, he felt like he was drowning. He intended to use this opportunity to find a life away from Massachusetts. He needed a life that would mean something, a life that did not include being stuck in an office staring out the window and feeling that life was passing him by.

He firmly believed that his father's offer of a thousand dollars for an hour of his time was only a lure to get him to come to the ranch. What he was being lured to, he had no idea, yet, secretly he had hoped that some part of the offer would include his father's desire for Scott to stay and become a part of his life. He would never have guessed on that first day Murdoch would offer him a third of the ranch.
That was all history, now. The offer had been made, and accepted, and with it came not only the father he had always wanted, but a brother he had never even known about. A sister, too, if the truth be told. Teresa might not have Lancer blood flowing through her veins, but she was as much a part of the family as any of the rest of them. After yawning deeply, Scott quietly walked up the stairs and headed for his room.

"Scott," Murdoch blinked, a lamp in his hand. "It's kind of late isn't it?"

"Actually," the young man grinned sheepishly. "It's early, about five in the morning." Scott paused, his hand on his door. "I'm sorry I woke you."

"You didn't," Murdoch assured him. "My back was bothering me. I was just going back to bed." The gray-haired man paused at his door. "Good night, Son."

"Good night, Murdoch." Scott shut his door and then leaned back against it with a grin. So this is how it felt to have your father catch you sneaking in after a liaison with a beautiful woman. To his surprise, it felt very good. With a laugh, he undressed and climbed into bed for a few hours sleep.


Scott laughed as he grabbed Amanda's arm, holding her up as gravity threatened to send her sprawling out onto the ice. The young woman had stopped by the MacPherson home shortly after lunch and invited everyone to go ice-skating at the park. Travis and Murdoch had declined but the younger people grabbed their winter clothing and headed out for some wintry fun.

"Why don't we take a break," Scott suggested, maneuvering them towards a nearby bench.

"That was fun!" Amanda exclaimed as she sat down. "And I only fell a half a dozen times."

"You're not that bad!" Scott disagreed. "Skating takes a lot of practice."

"I've been skating for as long as I can remember," the young woman declared. "I just can't stay on my feet." She smiled at the handsome man beside her. "You however are a quick learner."

"I didn't always live in California," Scott confessed, a twinkle in his eyes. "I grew up in Boston."

"You cheated!" Amanda playfully punched his arm. "I thought I was introducing you to something new."

"I didn't want to spoil your surprise." Scott returned her smile with one that was just as teasing. "Besides, it was fun having you show me how to walk on skates."

Across the ice, Murray and Teresa were skating arm in arm. "They make a cute couple," Amanda observed.

"Shhhhh," the blond grinned. "If Murdoch and Travis get wind of it, they'll be married before the week is out. I'm not ready to send my sister off to New York. Not yet."

"You really care about your family," the young woman said warmly. "I like that about you."

"They mean a lot to me," Scott admitted. "That's why it bothers me so much that we can't get home." With a weary sigh, he leaned over to tighten the strings on his skates. "My brother, Johnny, and I just met a few months ago. This was to be our first family Christmas together."

"I guess there has been no word on the trains?" Amanda asked sympathetically and placed her hand on his arm in comfort. "I'll pray for a miracle when I light the candles at church on Sunday."

"Thanks." Scott was touched by her offer. "I hate to break up the perfect couple, but Teresa and I have tickets to the theatre tonight."

"I didn't know you wanted to go!" Amanda exclaimed. "I am on the theatre board. I could have gotten them for you."

Scott's eyes lit up. "I have an idea. Do you think you could get two more tickets for tonight?" He glanced at the couple across the ice. "As much as Teresa is looking forward to attending the play with me, I'm quite sure she would be even more thrilled if Murray was her escort." His smile turned affectionate in a way that said he was not thinking about his sister. "And I would be honored to have you as my date."

"Consider it done," the young woman confirmed. "However, you might want to talk to Teresa first. She might have been looking forward to an evening alone with you."

"Good idea." Scott waved the couple over and pulled Teresa to the side, where he whispered the idea in her ear. She nodded, and her face lit up with a very joyful smile. 'So much for wanting to spend an evening alone with her brother,' Scott thought in amusement.

"Murray," the blond called to the young banker. "Teresa and I have tickets to the theatre for tonight, and Amanda has graciously offered two more. Would you like to go with us?"

"I would love to, Scott. Thank you so much for including me," Murray answered politely, but his smile was only for Teresa. "If we head home now, we'll have time to go out for dinner before the play. My treat."


Scott stripped his evening clothes off and slipped into bed, pulling the covers over him, and letting his mind wander back over the evening's activities. Teresa had been like a child in a candy store at the play. He had found himself watching her more than the show, and had caught Murray doing the same more than once, too.

This both delighted and concerned him. Teresa deserved to find a man who would love her and take care of her, but Scott had to admit that the thought of Teresa getting married and leaving Lancer did not sit well with him. For twenty-five years it had been just him and his grandfather, but now he had a family and she was part of that family. He really did not want to have to travel to New York to visit her.

A rush of loneliness came over him as he rolled on his side. He missed the ranch, Maria's cooking, Jelly's grumbling and Cipriano's silent acceptance. Most of all, though, he missed getting on his horse and riding side by side with his brother onto the range. There was a connection between them; it was like they had always known each other or at least known that somewhere out there the other existed.

Closing his eyes, he said a silent and earnest prayer that a miracle would happen. Somehow they had to find a way to make it home for Christmas.


Lancer -

Denny Jones, on of the regular stage drivers for the route into Morro Coyo, waved at Johnny. Barranca was easily recognizable to all in the area, and that Johnny would be the only one riding the sometimes ornery horse was a given. Scott could manage, but seldom did because of the effort involved.

Johnny waved back, then fell into line behind the rattling monstrosity that used to been the fastest means of transportation throughout the West. Well, for those who were not daring enough to grab a horse and camp out on the open range at night.

The arrival of the railroad had changed that in many ways. The stagecoaches had not become totally obsolete; they were still the main source of transportation between the communities that were miles away from the nearest rail stop.

This particular stage was of interest to Johnny only because of one passenger. Jeff Demont, the bridge engineer from San Francisco was supposed to be arriving today. A small lie had changed the engineer's plans of staying in Green River, which was actually closer to San Francisco than either Morro Coyo or Spanish Wells. Morro Coyo was the closet of the three to Lancer's south pasture, but it was not having to deal with Val that had prompted the suggestion that Morro Coyo would be a better place to stay.

The telegram that Johnny has received stated that Mr. Demont intended on staying in the hotel in town. Experience had taught him that it made things easier if he had good access to a telegraph. He would out to the job site, take his notes, and then return to his hotel room and figure out the specifics of the job. Then he would wire his firm in San Francisco with the details.

As Mr. Demont planned on staying in town, Johnny had sent word to Señor Sanchez, the owner of the small livery in Morro Coyo, that he would be needing to rent a horse for a Lancer guest. It would be more practical to use on of Miguel's horses, which were far more docile than the cow ponies in the Lancer stables. The rental would pretty much even out with what it would have cost to stable one of the ranch horses, anyway.

The stage rattled on towards the station, but Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop by the hitching rail at the side of the hotel. The building provided a cooling shade that would not be present out on the street. With a pat to Barranca's rump, Johnny headed for the stage depot.

He had planned his arrival to coincide with Denny's ever-dependable ten o'clock stop that always came at ten thirty-five. Thankfully, Denny had not let him down. The last thing Johnny wanted to deal with was anymore sympathetic smiles and well-wished condolences as he waited around with no place to go.

The passengers began to disembark, but when Denny slammed the door shut, Johnny did not see the city dandy standing on the boardwalk. Figuring the engineer had either changed his mind about accepting the job, or had missed the stage at Cross Creek. Johnny turned to go when he heard his name.

"Mr. Lancer?"

Johnny turned back around and found himself staring into the grinning face of a young cowboy he had seen get off the stage. The man looked to be in his thirties, had dark black hair, green eyes, and had an easy look about him. "The driver said that you were John Lancer," the cowboy held out his hand. "I'm Jeff Demont."

Accepting the outstretched hand, he stammered, "I guess I was expecting someone more..."

"Someone more citified," Jeff finished for him with a hearty laugh.

"I'm sorry-" Johnny began only to be cut off with a wave from the engineer's hand.

"Don't be. I get that all the time. I find it all rather amusing. It seems everyone out here just expects that anyone with a college degree has to be a boring, stuffed-shirt, dandy. I disagree with that such a thing is a requirement, though I have met enough of exactly that sort to know that the idea is hardly preposterous," the man laughed.

Johnny smiled. "I used to think that way, but not anymore. My brother Scott graduated from Harvard, and he's anything but a dandy."

"Harvard?" Jeff seemed surprised, but not for the reason Johnny thought. "I attended Harvard, too. When I received your wire, I recognized Lancer name from an inquiry I had responded to several months ago. I wonder if I had any classes with your brother, though the name is not familiar from those days."

"I don't reckon you would have. Scott's a few years younger than you," Johnny replied. "He might have heard of you, though."

"Maybe..." whatever Mr. Demont might have wanted to say slipped away as his gaze became focused on something beyond where Johnny stood in front of him. "Was that you riding in behind the stage?"

Johnny saw that the man was looking directly at Barranca. "Yeah," he said with pride. He could tell that Jeff was impressed with Barranca, and not just because the golden palomino was 'pretty'.

"That is one fine animal you've got there," Jeff said with genuine appreciation.

"You got an eye for good stock," Johnny agreed.

"Horses, yes." The engineer sighed and smiled. "Cattle never interested me, though, which seriously annoyed my father. I was raised on a ranch in southern Wyoming. My father is a cattleman all the way. He firmly believes that God's greatest gift to mankind was the almighty cow."

To this Johnny could only laugh. Murdoch probably thought the same thing, though Johnny didn't think he had ever heard his father put it in exactly those terms.

"Me," Jeff continued, his eyes still staring in the direction of where Barranca was tethered, "I think that title belongs to the horse. No where will you find a more intelligent, noble, and loyal animal. Cattle are just plain stupid, they smell, and they don't even look good."

This was one sentiment that Johnny could fully appreciate. "Yep, you know cattle, all right," he said with a grin.

"If it's not too late, we can take my luggage to the hotel and then head out to the river. I'd like to get a better idea of exactly what kind of terrain we'll be dealing with."

Johnny agreed. While Jeff took his luggage to the hotel, Johnny headed for the livery stable to get him a horse.

*** *** *** ***

Mr. Demont was still squatting on the ground on the river bank near the recently collapsed bridge. He hadn't said much since they arrived at the sight, but Johnny got the distinct impression that he was about to get another dose of bad news. After meeting the engineer and finding him to be a personable sort, Johnny had actually found himself relaxing a bit. Now his nerves were back on edge. He sighed heavily as he stared across the river, watching a few head of cattle wandering aimlessly as they grazed.

"From the sound of that sigh, I'm thinking you already know what I'm going to say," the engineers voice sounded from Johnny's right.

Steeling himself against another blow, Johnny turned to face the man. "Wouldn't be the first bit of bad news I've had this month," he said in defeat.

The older man's expression changed. He looked thoughtfully at Johnny, but thankfully, none of the consolation that had been dogging Johnny for days appeared on the chiseled features. "It's not the material that is the problem, Johnny. Wood or metal, no bridge would stay up long. The riverbank is just too unstable."

Johnny nodded, then turned back to watch the cows again. It looked like Murdoch had been right all along.

"What's upstream of here?"

"More of the same," Johnny said softly.

Jeff seemed to sense the man's despondency. "I'd like to have a look, anyway. Up and down stream. Just because the land looks the same on top, doesn't mean it is underneath. We just might be able to find a spot that would be more suitable."

Johnny, however, did not share the man's optimism. "It'll be dark in about an hour. That'll be just enough time to get you back to town."

"Tomorrow, then?" Jeff pushed.

Even through his despair, Johnny knew that something had to be done. They could go back to the same old bridge, having it repair or rebuild it every year, but he could not bring himself to admit that defeat. Not when it might end up costing someone their life.

"Tomorrow," he agreed. The levelheadedness that remained told him that he should talk to Cipriano, and find out if there was some reason that this particular spot had been picked for the bridge, or if there was some reason that it couldn't go elsewhere. He would do that first thing when he got back from seeing the engineer back to town.   

Saturday, December 17, 1870:

Denver -

"Good morning," Scott smiled as he walked into the dining room. He shook his head as he sat down at the table. His father and Travis were reading the paper and both acknowledged his greeting with a noise that the young man could only describe as a grunt. He studied his father over the rim of his cup as he sipped at the hot coffee. Murdoch had circles around his eyes and looked as if he had not slept in a week. Could it be that Murdoch and their host had been drinking a little too much scotch last night.

"How was the theatre?" Murdoch asked, his eyes remained on the page in front of him.

"We had a great time," Scott replied smiling. "You should have seen Teresa. She really enjoyed herself." He glanced at his host and back to Murdoch. "What did the two of you do?"

"We played cards," Travis groaned loudly, giving his old friend a dark look. "I forgot how competitive Murdoch can be. He insisted we stay up until he won a hand." The obvious victor of the pervious nights game grinned at Murdoch's scowl. "I gave up at four o'clock and went to bed."

"Murdoch!" Scott said, raising his eyebrows. "Now, I know where Johnny gets his competitiveness."

"Johnny?" Murdoch growled. "I seem to remember a certain son of mine who insisted his brother stay up all night over a checkerboard."

"Like father," Travis laughed, tipping his glass first towards Murdoch then towards Scott. "Like son."

Scott and Murdoch looked at each other and joined him in his laughter.

"What are your plans today, Son?" Murdoch asked Scott.

"I'm going out with Murray as soon as he gets ready," Scott informed him. "He needs to pick up a suit for tonight, and," sparing a wink in Travis' direction, he added, "Don't forget you have a date of your own."

"Rose!" his father groaned. Scott ignored the dark look his father gave him. "This is all your fault!"

"You asked her," Scott reminded him. "I didn't have to 'help' nearly as much as I was expecting to have to."

"Morning," Murray greeted them as he walked into the dining room, slipping into the chair beside his father. "I have some good news for you." The young man looked at his father's guests. "My friend, Riley, works at the telegraph office. He heard that the trains may be able to head west again soon."

"When!" Murdoch demanded. Scott could see the hope on his father's face.

"He wasn't sure," the banker replied.

"Murdoch," Travis stood up, addressing his friend. "I'll find out what's going on immediately."

"I'm going with you!" Murdoch declared, turning to Scott. "I'll return as soon as I know something."

"We'll wait to leave until you get back," Scott replied. He watched his father leaving, not daring to believe that their luck could hold out and they would soon be on their way home. The truth was, he would not breathe easy until he rode over the crest of the hill and saw the hacienda.

"I sure know how to clear out a room," Murray laughed, looking over at Scott as he filled his plate with food. "I hope it's more than a rumor."

"So do I," Scott replied quietly. "I hope you don't mind waiting until there is news to go shopping."

"I don't mind at all," Murray assured Scott. "The party isn't until seven o'clock. That gives us plenty of time to pick up my clothes."

"Let's not say anything to Teresa," Scott suggested. "There is no sense in getting her hopes up if they find out we're not going anywhere."


Scott stood at the counter, patiently waiting for the gifts he had purchased for Murdoch to be wrapped. Travis had mentioned earlier that his father was enamored with this particular jacket, a hat, and a pair of boots. Anticipating Scott's reaction, Travis had requested that the store owner hold them for the young man to purchase, should he still need a gift for his father. With his shopping list finally complete, he sighed in relief.

While he waited, another surge of happiness ran through him at the news his father had brought home. The railroad was certain that the train would be able to leave Denver headed west on the nineteenth. With at least two bridges that had collapsed because of the ice storm, the railroad had rushed to complete a spur that would connect the central line with the more northern route through the mountains. They would have to go north, then over the mountains into Oregon, before heading south from there. They would be pushing it, but Scott calculated that they would make it home in time for Christmas.

The next stop would be to the train depot to make sure they had secured a place on the train for Johnny's Christmas present. The clerk had assured him that Travis had already spoken to him and that there was no problem, but Scott was not taking any chances with his precious cargo. This trip had been plagued with too many unexpected delays for him to take anything for granted.

He picked up his packages and headed out the door, turning to the east as he saw Murray walking towards him with Teresa at his side. Scott grinned at the conversation he had shared earlier in the day with his new friend. When they were alone after breakfast, the banker had told him confidentially that he was not returning to New York after the holiday celebrations. He had decided that he simply did not living there, and would be returning to Denver until he decided on another option. The tentative plans were for him to accompany his father the following summer to visit with the Lancers. Very boldly, Murray had asked if Teresa had anyone waiting for her back in California, and inquired as to what it would take for him to win her heart.

Scott felt for the young man; it was obvious he was quite taken with his sister. The blond told him that there was no secret he could give him. Teresa had only two requirements for getting married. She wanted to stay close to Lancer and the insisted that she would only marry someone she loved. Murray had smiled and said he was already halfway there. Scott grinned, but to himself he was think the confident man might not be so sure of himself grilled by Teresa's younger brother. Johnny would want to know for himself that Murray would take very good care of their sister.

"Have you gotten all you shopping done?" Scott inquired. "If so, we should head for Amanda's. Teresa needs time to get ready, and I still have to check on the arrangements for my horse at the depot." The girls had decided at the theatre the night before that it would be fun to have Scott and Murray pick them both up at Amanda's home.

"I'm finished," Teresa nodded smiling. "I even managed to get my Christmas shopping completed, too." She held out a package toward her brother. "This one is yours," she teased.

"Let me carry it for you," Scott replied smoothly, a twinkle in his eyes.

"Oh, no!" she teasingly gasped as she pulled the package back towards her. "You'll peek Scott Lancer. You've been annoying us since Thanksgiving for hints about your presents."

"I love presents," Scott admitted sheepishly. "I just hate waiting for them." He continued as they walked down the street towards the depot. "One time, when I was younger, I waited until my grandfather was at work and unwrapped all my presents to see what he had gotten me."

"I hope your grandfather spanked you," Teresa smiled wickedly. "What a naughty child you were."

"No, he didn't." the blond grinned. "Once I realized I was in trouble, I threw myself on the mercy of the servants and they rewrapped them before he got home."

"That sounds like something Stephen would do," Murray laughed. "He used to look at our mom with those puppy-dog eyes of his, and she would give him anything."

"My father and Murdoch always made sure I had a nice Christmas," Teresa divulged. "There was a lot of advantage to being the only child at Lancer." She gasped at her words, shocked by what she had inadvertently said. "Scott, I'm sorry!"

"It's okay, Teresa." Scott assured her. "The past is behind us, we're making our own Christmas memories now."


Scott and Murray stood at the punch bowl waiting for their dates to come back from the powder room. Scott wished with all his heart that Johnny had been here tonight, though he knew in his heart that Johnny would not have been comfortable in the formal trappings of the mayor's party. Still, his resilient nature would have persevered, and he would have found something, or someone, to occupy his time. Mostly, he would have been able to be part of Teresa's joy.

When the young men had arrived at Amanda's, they had to wait a few minutes in the sitting room for the two ladies to finish getting dressed. The wait was well worth it. Teresa was a vision of pure beauty. She had chosen a Christmas green dress with a gold sash and Amanda had pulled her hair up, with a small portion dangling on each side in a loose curl. For a moment, Scott had to remind himself that she was his sister. The brothers had made a pact early on that neither of them would ever consider a romantic relationship with the dark haired woman, and more recently, they had confided in the other that the pact had been unnecessary; Teresa would always be thought of as 'just a sister' by both men.

A second later, his eyes found Amanda. She looked ravishing in the blue velvet dress, and it had taken a concentrated effort on his part to remember that they were not alone in the room. Normally, she wore her hair up but tonight she wore it down, the long tresses curled at the end. She was beautiful, and Scott found himself hoping the dance would be over soon. When they entered the party, most every male head had turned in their direction. It had been a very satisfying moment for the man who had one of the two best-looking women at the ball firmly holding onto his arm.

"Looks like your father has some competition," Murray grinned as Travis danced by with Rose.

"Those two are a pair," Scott shook his head, watching as Murdoch cut in, twirling Rose off in a different direction. "They act more like brothers than friends."

"In their own way," Murray spoke quietly. "I believe they are."

Scott felt the familiar tug, the longing for home that kept showing up when he least expected it. Travis and his father reminded him of his relationship with Johnny, with one exception. The Lancer brothers had promised each other that they would spend the rest of their lives together, not letting miles or marriage separate them. There would come a time when each of them would start a family and perhaps build their own homes on their favorite piece of Lancer land, but they would remain the best of friends or as they liked to refer to it, brothers of the heart.

Too long they had been separated because of a selfish woman, a manipulating grandfather, and a father who had put his land before his own flesh and blood. The two of them were the ones who had paid the price in the long run, and neither of them was willing to let anyone come between them again.

A hand slipped into his, and Scott turned, smiling brightly at his date. After depositing his cup of punch on the nearby table, he escorted her out onto the dance floor. At one point, they danced by his father and Rose. Scott's eyes met his father's, and in that fleeting glance, he knew that as happy as they both were, they were also both thinking of something else. They were going to be heading home soon, and it looked as if, maybe, miracles did exist, and that Lancer's might get to spend their first Christmas together after all.


Lancer -

Johnny rode into Morro Coyo well after the sun had risen, but it was still before noon. After spending the ride back to town the previous evening chatting with Jeff about horses, he had decided that the engineer was more than capable of riding a horse with a little more spirit than anything Miguel's stable could offer. Next to Barranca trotted a young gelding that he had broken a couple of months back.

Scott was the last one to ride Dancer, as Teresa had dubbed him, and the expert horseman had reported that the mount was responding very well to both hand and leg commands. It would take a little longer to make a good cow pony out of him, but for now, Scott deemed him to be a very good riding horse. They had even suggested to Murdoch that he would make a good horse for Teresa, but for some reason their father was adamant that Teresa only ride the mares.

The idea had been dropped, but for the life of him, Johnny could not understand what difference it made. A horse was just an animal; it wasn't like he was going to go getting fresh with Teresa or something. Scott had said something about propriety, but he, too, had seemed a bit confused by Murdoch's attitude. As for Johnny, he felt that he and Murdoch argued enough as it was, so he had kept his feeling to himself and begun teaching Dancer how to work cattle, as had been planned from the beginning.

They would not be there long, so Johnny tied the two horses to the hitching post at the front of the hotel. For the moment, the building itself was casting a shadow over the area, so the horses should be comfortable enough until Jeff was ready to depart.

He already knew the room number, so he by-passed the front desk and headed up the stairs. He was just about to knock on the door to room #4, when the door opened, and a lathered up face stared at him in surprise. "Johnny." The engineer composed himself rather quickly. "I heard you walking up the stairs and thought it was the maid with some towels."

Johnny laughed, and Jeff waved him into the room and shut the door. "I guess that's one thing you Harvard men have in common," he said with a smile. "Teresa says Scott goes through more towels than the rest of us put together."

"I was at the head of my class for Bathing Etiquette 205," Jeff stated seriously, but the sparkle in his eyes gave away his teasing. "I would love to have a chance to talk to your brother."

The levity instantly left the room. Johnny turned away, staring out the window at nothing in particular. "Sorry, but Scott ain't here," he said evenly. A series of loud knocks on the door spared him any further explanation.

As soon as Louisa, the housekeeper for the small hotel had left, Johnny changed the subject. "I brought a horse from the ranch for you to ride today." He forced thoughts of his absent family aside. "You seemed a bit bored with that nag from the livery."

"I was," Jeff's voice was strained as he spoke, his head held at an odd angle as he shaved the beard from under his jaw. The razor was rinsed in the basin, then returned to make another swipe or two across the pale skin. "I guess you figured that mare would be more than enough for the dandy engineer."

"Sorry about that," Johnny apologized, but refrained from adding that he should have learned his lesson when Scott had proved his first impressions so very wrong. Jeff had let the subject of his family go, and for that, Johnny was grateful. "Cipriano, my segundo, is going to meet us up by the river. He's been around this ranch for a long time. If you come across a place where you can put that bridge, he'll know if it will work for the cattle, too."

Jeff gave Johnny a curious glance, but said nothing. The remnants of the shaving cream were wiped from his face, and he reached for his shirt, which was hanging on the bedpost. "That will be good. You don't want to correct one problem, only to create another one in the process."

*** *** *** ***

After spending a couple of hours upriver from the collapsed bridge, Johnny was resigned to the fact that they would be rebuilding the worrisome bridge after all. Jeff, however, refused to give up, and insisted on a down river survey, despite Cipriano's claim that the terrain in that direction was extremely rocky and steep, making it impractical to drive the herd that way when the time came to move the animals.  "This is perfect." The engineer had been studying a particular piece of ground for a long time, digging a few feet down into the rocky soil, and even putting some dirt in a small glass tube with some liquid and shaking it around a few times. Johnny had no clue what he was doing, but his heart was heavy when he looked over at Cipriano, who was shaking his head.

"Won't work for the cattle," Johnny disputed Jeff's claim.

Standing up, Jeff looked around. Not only was he an accomplished engineer, he had been raised around cattle. Up until now he had concentrated solely on finding a suitable base for the bridge footers, and now that he had, it was time to seek another kind of solution.

Along the riverbank, about forty yards or so away from the embankment, ran a tall rock formation, a kind of ridge that separated the flat land beyond from the river. However, there was a very nice break in the rocks almost directly in line with where he would suggest erecting the bridge.

"Does that go all the way through?" he asked, pointing towards a break in the rocky hillside.

"No," Cipriano shook his head. "There is rock blocking the way, not too far into the pass."

"Let's take a look."

Johnny and Cipriano exchanged resigned looks, but followed the enthusiastic man through the opening in the rock wall. Some people just had to see for themselves, and Jeff was definitely one of those people. Upon reaching the wall of rock, they sat and waited for the engineer to confirm what the already knew; unless they could get the cattle to fly, there would be no getting over that barrier.

"You couldn't have asked for a better lay out," Jeff exclaimed as he scrambled back down the embankment.

"What do you mean?" Johnny asked hesitantly.

Waving his arm towards the rocks, he explained his plan. "All we have to do is dynamite that rock out of the way, and you have a natural chute leading almost directly to the mouth of the bridge. A couple of men on horseback on either side as the cattle emerge from the pass will be more than enough to have them headed over the bridge before they even have a chance to balk.

"From up there," he pointed to the top of the rock barrier, "you can see the mesa on the other side."

Unsure of this, and unwilling to believe that anything could be that 'perfect' after the last couple of weeks of disasters, Johnny turned to Cipriano. "What do you think?" he asked softly.

The segundo was deep in thought. "This was considered, many years ago," he said as his eyes surveyed the rocks in front of them. "But your padre decided on the place where the bridge is now, as it was closer to the trail leading from the north range." He looked over at Johnny. "Dynamite is dangerous. There was no need for such a risk."

Johnny thought on this. Besides providing a means of getting the herd from one side of the river to the other, his main concern was for the safety of the men driving the herd. Between the carnage he had seen in the aftermath of the train bridge collapse, and the memory of the frightened bellows of the Lancer cows as the plummeted into the river a few days ago, Johnny could not bring himself to ask his men, his friends, to take such a risk. Not if it could be avoided.

"Blasting is always dangerous, Johnny," Jeff interceded. "But the risk is minimized when it is done by experts. One of the partners in my firm is a demolition expert. He could get this cleared out with minimal risk to anyone. Besides, this pass will have to be opened up to get the building materials through. With a little more effort, it could be made into a safe passage for cattle to traverse."

Looking up at the rocky wall, Johnny weighted the words of both men. He was all to well aware of what a difference being a professional could make, though he doubted Mr. Dement would appreciate the comparison. If it could be that easy, this would be a far better route for the herd than the one they were using. There would be less chance for a stampede like the one that had cost them the wooden bridge and twenty-four head, and that would be even more of an advantage to the cowboys involved.

"You sure about this?" he stared down at the engineer.

"Yes, Mr. Lancer," came the confident reply. "You blast out this pass, and you'll have perfect access to the river crossing. The riverbank is stable, and with minimal upkeep, you'll have a bridge that will outlast you."

*** *** *** ***

Looking up from his glass, Johnny met Cipriano's intense stare. "You think I'm messin' up, don't you?" he asked softly.

"No, Juanito, I do not."

"Murdoch didn't like this metal bridge idea."


"Scott couldn't talk him into it."

"No, he could not."

"Why, Cip?" Johnny felt like he was loosing hold on his sanity. One minute he was sure that this was the right thing to do, the next he was questioning every detail. "If this ain't such a bad idea, then why wouldn't the Old Man even listen to Scott?"

"He listened," Cipriano said gently. "But you know what he did not."

Startled that anyone would agree that Johnny knew anything Murdoch didn't, Johnny shook his head. "Not me, Cip. I couldn't tell him that water was wet without him having to check for himself."

The older man sighed. "Sometimes, Juanito, when a man gets on in years, he forgets that things change. That the old ways are not always the best. Just because it is new does not make it bad."

"He could see that when it came to Scott saying something," Johnny admitted with some bitterness. "Me, he just figured I was a dumb gunhawk."

"This is not true!" Cipriano slammed his glass down on the desk. "Your padre was just afraid."

"Of what? That I'd shoot him?"

The anger slipped from the segundo's face and he smiled. "Nothing so dramatic, Juanito. Your hermano, he is muy bueno with words, but even he could not sway Murdoch Lancer if Murdoch Lancer did not want to be swayed. What your padre would not admit to you, to either of you, was that he was afraid of being too old, of being put out to pasture by two sons who did not need him and his old ways."

Johnny opened his mouth to object, but choked back the words before they could be uttered. Was the Old Man afraid of getting too old to be of any use? Was he afraid that his sons would take over and leave him in the dust if he didn't keep a tight hold on the reins? Could it really be that simple?      

Sunday, December 18, 1870:

Denver -

Murdoch rolled over onto his side, watching the sun come up through the opened curtains of his window. He silently thanked God for granting the miracle his family had been praying for since finding out that they were stranded in Denver. If all went as scheduled, they would be boarding the train tomorrow, and heading for home to celebrate their first Christmas together as a family.

Every dark cloud has a silver lining, and Murdoch knew that this one was no different. This time in Denver had opened his eyes. It was time for some changes in the everyday operation of the ranch. Scott had scared him when he had pointed out that the brothers did not want to have to leave Lancer to fulfill their dreams. Besides the fear of losing his sons, was the practical reality that Johnny and Scott had more than proven their worth to the ranch. They had earned the right to have a voice in the decisions that were made. As soon as they got home and the holiday was over, he would sit down with his two sons and discuss the plans that they had for the future of Lancer.

The gray-haired man shook his head, feeling the strings of apprehension tugging at his heart. I was not going to be an easy transition, sharing the decision making with his sons, but one way or another he would learn to deal with it. He had spent over twenty years missing them, living with regrets, and burying his feelings where they were concerned. Now that they were back in his life, he knew there was no way he would survive if he lost either of them a second time. He would put his foolish fears aside and accept that the time had come to begin passing on the legacy of Lancer.

He sat up on the edge of the bed. He was just reaching for his pants that were laid over the chair by the bed when there was a soft knock on the door.

"Murdoch," Scott spoke quietly. "Are you awake?"

"I'm getting dressed," he called out. "I'll be downstairs in a few minutes."

"I'll meet you there," Scott replied quietly.

Murdoch quickly shaved and combed his hair, glancing at the clock on his dresser. It was no wonder his son had knocked on his door. It was nearly time to leave for church. With a sigh, he redressed in his Sunday suit. He would be lucky if there was time to eat before they left the house. He grabbed his Sunday jacket and headed out the bedroom door.


Scott stepped out of the chapel and into the sunshine, looking around at the people congregating after the service. He spied his father standing a short distance away, talking to Travis and one of the railroad men. Murray and Teresa had already made they way back to the carriage, and were talking casually to one of the parishioners. Scott over towards his father, anxious to know if anything had changed about the chance for the trains to be up and running. Murdoch had excused himself from the group and met Scott halfway.

"Sorry I kept you waiting, Sir," Scott apologized. "I got held up inside."

"Good news," The look of relief on his father's said all that needed to be said. "Our train will be leaving early tomorrow afternoon."

"Thank goodness," Scott sighed in relief, feeling as if he had just gotten the best Christmas present ever. He was going home and would be able to spend the holiday with his brother and Scott wanted that more than anything.

"We should make sure we have everything packed this evening," Murdoch informed him. "Travis has put his driver at our disposal, and he's already made arrangements for his stableman to take your horse to the depot and get him settled."

"I've had a good time in Denver, Sir," Scott admitted to his father. "But I can't shake this feeling that we need to get home. I know it sounds stupid, but I know that Johnny need me," He paused for a moment, not meeting his father's eyes. He was sure Murdoch had to think he was crazy. "No, he doesn't need me, he needs us, at home, as soon as possible."

"You're probably just missing him," Murdoch assured him. "If there's anyone who can take care of himself, it's your brother."

Scott fell silent, not wanting to disagree with his father but he knew it was more than the loss of his brother's company. The feeling had been building over the past few days. At first, Scott had dismissed it as just missing Johnny, too, but the feeling would not go away. It kept telling him that something was not right at home, and that they needed to get there as soon as possible.

"Let's head over to the carriage," Murdoch suggested. "Travis said he'd meet us back at the house."

Father and son approached the carriage, and Murray turned to them, a smile on his face. "Murdoch," the delighted young man began exuberantly. "I would like to introduce you to my brother, Stephen MacPherson."

Scott looked a the young red-headed man. Their eyes met, and Scott paled as he recognized his grandfather's former employee. "Stephen?"

"Mr. Lancer," Stephen replied stiffly. "When my brother mentioned your name, I wondered if it was you."

"You know each other?" Murdoch asked, frowning at the obvious tension between the two young men.

"I used to work at Garrett Enterprises," Stephen divulged. Scott saw the cold look in his eyes as the young MacPherson stared at him.

"Stephen, I-" Scott started to speak, only to be interrupted by Travis as he approached them.

"Stephen!" Travis called. He grabbed his son hugging him warmly. "What are you doing here?"

"Just following Murray's lead," his son grinned, returning the hug. "He sent me a wire that he was coming home. I had a sudden urge for a Denver Christmas."

"You've met our guests?" Travis inquired.

"Yes," Stephen replied quietly. "Murray introduced us."

"Let's head for the house," the investor suggested. He had not picked up on the tension between his son and Scott. "Dinner will be ready when we get there and you can fill me in on what you've been up to."

Scott motioned his father to the side while the others got into the carriage. " I think I'll walk back to the house, there isn't going to be enough room for everyone."

"What happened between you and Stephen?" Murdoch frowned.

"It's a long story," Scott replied. "And something I'm not very proud of." Without offering any more of an explanation, Scott headed off down the sidewalk, slowly making his way towards the MacPherson home.


Dinner had been a boisterous affair. The MacPherson's had eagerly been catching up on each other's lives, and Murdoch and Teresa had eagerly joined in on the conversation. Scott, however, had concentrated only on his plate, supplying a comment here and there, but for the most part, keeping to himself.

Murdoch was worried about whatever conflict stood between his son and Stephen, he hoped it was not too serious. He and Travis were old friends, and it looked like the families might be linked even tighter, if he was reading Teresa and Murray correctly. He had tried, unsuccessfully, to get his dejected son to him after dinner but Scott had politely informed him it was nothing important, and shut himself in his room.

Now, Murdoch sat in the parlor with his old friend. Teresa was busy packing, and Murray and Stephen had gone out on an errand for their father.

"I don't know what's gotten into Scott," Murdoch confessed, shaking his head. "He just turned on that Boston charm of his and refused to talk to me about it."

"Maybe it's best if we stay out of it, Murdoch," Travis advised his old friend. "You'll be leaving tomorrow afternoon, and Stephen gave me his word he would not start anything with Scott."

Murdoch frowned. He did not like being the only one in the dark, and it bothered him even more to know that Travis' son would confide in him, when his own son had shut him out so completely. "You know what happened?"

"Yes," Travis sighed loudly. "I understand how my son feels, but I think there is more to this than even he knows." He looked at his old friend, weighing whether or not share what his son had told him earlier. "I really think it's better left to the boys to work out. We've been friends much to long to let their difference come between us."

"You're right," Murdoch nodded in agreement. He looked up as Scott stopped in the doorway.

"I'm going out for a while," Scott told them quietly. "I won't be late." The two men watched as the young man grabbed his coat and headed out the door.

"I just wish he'd talk to me," Murdoch growled frustrated. "He's obviously upset by what ever it is that happened."

"He'll tell you when he's ready, Murdoch," Travis said reassuringly.

Murdoch nodded. His friend was right, but that did not make him feel any better. He had a feeling that it would be a very long time before Scott was 'ready'. It hurt to know that his son did not feel confident enough in their relationship to confide in him, but Murdoch also knew that he had no one to blame for that but himself. He and his elder son had mended many a bridge on this trip, but it would take time before crossing them would be easy for either man. Patience was not one of his virtues, but in this he knew it would have to become one.


Scott had returned late, and had slipped in unnoticed by the group in the parlor. He had been in bed for only a few minutes, when he heard a noise against his bedroom window. He sat up, waited a minute, then he heard the sound again. He quickly pulled his pants on and walked over to the window, looking down into the yard. A figure stood by the big oak tree and he opened the window.

"Who's there?" the blond called out.

"Hey, Cowboy!" a soft voice purred. "Wanna go for a midnight sleigh ride?"

The young man recognized the voice and smiled. He could really use some of Amanda's ministrations. "I stopped by your house earlier, but you weren't home, I'll be right down." Scott quickly donned the rest of his clothes and headed quietly out his door.

"Going somewhere?" Travis smiled knowingly as Scott tried to sneak out the back door.

"Ah...yes," Scott responded, once again feeling like the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I'm going for a sleigh ride with Amanda."

"I'll leave that door unlocked," Travis informed him with a shake of his head. "With two boys in the house, I found that it's easier than using the parlor window."

"Thanks," Scott replied sheepishly.

"Have fun."

Scott nodded as he headed out the door. He wanted to say a proper good bye to Amanda, and he also needed time to get his mind off of Stephen and the regrets he had over an incident that would never have happened if Scott had not been such a trusting fool. He would look for an opportunity to speak with Stephen before they left for home the following day, and he had also decided he would have to tell Murdoch about the incident. He wanted to, actually, but the air had to be cleared with all, what with the budding romance developing between Teresa and Murray.


Lancer -

"I sent a wire to Peter MacArthur yesterday evening after I got back to town," Jeff said as soon as Johnny entered his hotel room. "Mac is the best blasting man you'll ever come across, and just happens to be my partner."

Johnny nodded. Jeff Demont was no greenhorn, and after three trips to the south mesa, he had been more than capable of finding his way back to Morro Coyo by himself. Johnny had needed to check on a stream that needed to be cleared, so the men had parted ways after the engineer had given Johnny the answer he had been hoping existed. After speaking with Cipriano privately, Johnny was certain that he had made the right decision, even if he was not nearly as confident that his father would have agreed.

"How soon can he get here?" Johnny asked as he sat down, waiting once again for the dandy part of the cowboy to finished getting ready.

Green eyes zeroed in on Johnny. "You're serious about this project?" he asked.

"Yeah, I'm serious."

"Actually, I was planning on working up the official proposal today. Mac will want to look at the site before he makes a definite commitment, but we've worked together for a quite a few years. We understand enough about each other's jobs that we feel confident of what the other will think, providing there is nothing too unusual about the job."

"Blasting that pass ain't unusual?" Johnny asked, totally serious.

"Not really. As I said before, that rock would have to be blasted out of the way just to get the building materials to the work site. Knowing there will be cattle going through there just means that Mac will have to be a little neater, is all," Jeff explained as made the last swipe with his razor. After wiping his face clean, the turned back to Johnny. With a raised eyebrow, he looked Johnny over once, then grinned. "I'm guessing that you didn't come to town to attend church."

Johnny snorted. "Nope." His grin faded, his fingers toying with the unbuttoned concho of the pants leg of the foot that was resting on his knee. "Was feeling restless and decided to take a ride."

"You bring that gelding with you?"

"No." Johnny looked up to see disappointment in those green eyes, which he knew mirrored his own. "Didn't exactly plan on endin' up here," he admitted honestly.

Jeff sighed. "Just as well, really. I would be too tempted to go out and play, when I've got a proposal to write for a very anxious client."

Johnny slowly rose to his feet. "Guess I'd better get outta your way." He was almost to the door when he stopped.

"Johnny?" There was a hesitancy in the man's voice. Thankfully, there was also some compassion in the man's heart. "I'll bring the proposal out to the ranch tomorrow afternoon, if that's okay. The desk clerk gave me directions last night after I returned from dinner."

"Fine. I'll be around the house." After exiting the room, Johnny's irrigation began to grow. Seemed like everyone, even strangers, were told his private business. That had been one of the hardest things for him to accept when he first chose to take back his father's name. For too many years, the only one who knew anything personal about Johnny Madrid was Johnny Madrid. He had found out early on that the events in Johnny Lancer's life were open for debate behind every bar, store counter, and hitching post. It had irked him at the time; it still did.

*** *** *** ***

After his impromptu trip into town, Johnny had returned to the ranch and diligently completed the chore of updating the books with the receipts from the previous two weeks. Last Sunday this task had been forgotten in the wake of Marshal Canton's arrival. He could not even remember the second half of the day. Everything was a blur after he had seen the contents of the box, the only things that were left of lives that had been cut short by greed.

The next coherent memory he had was of waving to Cipriano to get the herd moving the next day. That and the sound of dirt, hitting the wooden lids of coffins. The sound was always there, haunting his dreams, and reminding his waking hours of all that had been lost. Even now, when it was there. That ever-present hollow plunking sound, followed by another swishing sound of shovel being pushed into dirt for another load. Over and over, all day and all night.


Looking up from the books in front of him, Johnny saw Cipriano standing in the archway that lead to the kitchen. "What else has gone wrong?" he asked in defeat.

"Da nada. Juanito," the old vaquero smiled, but there was worry in his eyes as he approached the desk and sat down in the seat that had become his for these 'business' discussions. "You look tired."

"I'm fine," Johnny groused, but he would not meet his friend's gaze as he pretended to be concentrating on the ledgers. "How're the new outhouses coming along?"

A raised eyebrow met his gaze when he snuck a peak up at Cipriano. "The one for the bunkhouse, she is dug. The old one has a few more weeks left before it should be full, so I had the men cover the new hole with that old barn door, as you said to do."

"That's good. And the one out back?" Johnny asked, wondering what he was missing. The look expression on Cipriano's face told him that he was definitely missing something.

"She has been finished since yesterday morning."

Johnny stared down at the pencil in his hand, twirling the wooden shaft between his thumb and index finger. He hadn't even noticed, but then again, he really couldn't remember if he'd even been back there. Most of his needs could be met with a convenient bush, and those that couldn't...well, he was sure Lucille was doing that quite regularly.

"Is strange," Cipriano's low voice cut into Johnny's thoughts. "Lucille did not eat the food I set out for her last night. She has not cleaned her bowl for days. Very strange for a dog who has never before turned up her nose at a meal."

"I ain't hungry, Cip," Johnny admitted what the other man obviously already knew. "That was the only way I could think of to keep Maria off both our backs."

"You must eat, Juanito. You cannot-"

"I'm eatin'," Johnny curtly interrupted. "Just cause it ain't enough for the rest of you don't mean it ain't enough for me." Slamming the ledger shut, he threw the pencil down on the desk and headed for the door. "I'm going for a ride."

*** *** *** ***

It was late, nearly midnight, when Johnny finally returned home. Nearly another hour was spent bedding down Barranca, though fifteen minutes would have more than adequately done the job. The palomino was already dozing when Johnny finally made his way towards the darkened house.

Knowing the way through the now familiar furnishings, he didn't even bother to light a lamp. He went straight to the fireplace and began filling the grate with the dry wood from the small rack at the edge of the hollow opening. It was chilly, and Johnny kept his coat on as he worked. Before too long, there was a roaring fire warming the room, and bathing it in an eerie glow.

Leaving his coat on, he headed for the kitchen. He wasn't hungry, but he knew Cipriano was right. If he didn't eat he would make himself sick. He could not allow that to happen. He had men, who had families, and all of them were depending on him to keep the ranch running smoothly. As expected, he found food warming in the stove, but unlike before, the plate was not a platter, and the portion was more suitable for a single person.

Plate in hand, he grabbed a fork and a towel and headed for the table. He paused as he passed his father's chair, then continued around to the other side, and the chair that had been his since the first meal eaten in the informal setting.

Murdoch's place was at the head. Scott had laid claim to the seat across from Johnny, with his back to the stove. Teresa sat next to Scott, and Johnny was on the far side, his back to the wall, the doors to the outside and into the hacienda in full view. That's the way it had been since the beginning, and he saw no reason to change it just because the other seats were now vacant.  

He finished most of the roast beef, some of the potatoes, but could not even begin to consider choking down the green beans. He knew Maria would not be pleased, but that would have to do. His stomach was already beginning to feel sick, and eating more only to toss it up later would not be worth it. He scrapped what was left of his dinner into the slop can by the sink. Lucille was not going to be a happy dog anymore, but there was no point in trying to deceive Maria any longer.

Once he returned to the great room, he shed his jacket. The fire had warmed the alcove by the sofa and he laid down with a sigh. Being in total charge of the ranch was teaching him things he had never considered before. Was this how Murdoch felt? Did the thought that his decisions could affect so many other lives ever scare the old Scotsman as much as they terrified Johnny? Did he ever doubt that he could make the right decisions the way Johnny was doubting himself? Did he ever just want to ride away and never look back?   

Monday, December 19, 1870:

Denver -

Scott stood looking out the window of the parlor room at the falling snow, wishing time would pass faster so they could be on their way. The blond would feel a hundred percent better once the train moved out of Denver.

He looked towards the door as Stephen walked in. The other man glanced around the room and turn as if to leave. "Please," Scott said quietly. "Don't leave. I've been looking for an opportunity to talk to you."

"Okay," Stephen replied warily. He walked over to his father's chair and sat down.

"I want to apologize," Scott spoke softly, realizing he was looking at the hat in his hand. He brought his eyes up to meet those of the man he had unintentionally wronged. "For not listening to you that day," he paused a moment. "And for firing you."

"Why did you do it, Scott?" Stephen demanded. "You had a reputation for being fair and honest."

"It's not easy to admit," Scott confessed. "But I was a fool." He stood up and paced to the window, collecting his thoughts. The blond turned back to the young man. "All my life I had never questioned my grandfather. If he told me something, I took it for gospel."

"I don't understand," Stephen declared. "Why would Harlan Garrett want me fired?"

"At the time I didn't know either," Scott admitted. "Now, I'm sure that he found out that you were Travis MacPherson's son." He smiled at the look of confusion on the red-haired man's face. "My grandfather would not have been happy to have someone so closely connected to my father in such close proximity to me. Even if you didn't work for him, if there was a chance that we could still be friends on a social level, then you were a risk. Hence, he had to make you appear to be someone with whom I would not want to associate. Having you angry at me was just added insurance."

"I see," the young man replied. "When did you realize I was innocent?"

"A few days before I left Boston for California," Scott explained. "It is not easy to say, but I feel I owe you this much. I'd appreciate it if this stayed just between us, though."

"Fair enough," Stephen promised. "I won't say a word."

"It was late, but I knew my grandfather would be at his office; he lived and breathed that business." The blond paused as if he were back there in that office. "I sat at his desk, waiting for him when I heard his voice coming from the hallway. I got up to go meet him, and that's when he mentioned you by name." Scott swallowed the lump in his throat. "He was laughing about how easily he had manipulated me into firing you."

"That must have been difficult," the other man sympathized.

"It was," Scott agreed solemnly. "I stood and listened as he continued discussing his future plans for me." The young rancher felt only sadness for his grandfather. "Among other things, he mentioned that he would do anything to keep anyone or anything from bringing Murdoch Lancer into my life. He had saved me from that fate when I was born, and he was not going to see all his hard work go to waste. I was his legacy, not some foreigner's home-bred labor."

"Damn!" Stephen swore. "It sounds like he was very controlling."

"He was," The young rancher admitted. "But that was only because I let him be." He walked over to the young man he had wronged so badly and offered his hand. "Can we start over?"

"I'd like that," Stephen said sincerely, shaking his hand. "I'm glad we had this talk, I really had a lot of respect for you, which made it even more painful when you wouldn't even listen to me."

The two young men looked up as Travis and Murdoch walked in the room.

"Everything all right in here?" Murdoch asked, looking worriedly from Scott to Stephen.

"More than all right," Scott replied, grinning. "I'm on my way upstairs to bring our luggage down."


Murdoch and Travis stood at the steps to the train. The gray haired man shook his old friend's hand, trying to figure out where the years had gone. It seemed like just yesterday the two of them had embarked on a wonderful adventure, leaving Inverness for a new land with new opportunity.

"Don't forget, you are coming to Lancer next summer," Murdoch reminded him. "I'm holding you to your promise."'

"Murray would kill me if I even suggested backing out," Travis nodded toward the young couple.

Murdoch smiled as he watched the sandy-haired young man comfort Teresa. "I think we just might have a match in our families."

"Better him than me," Stephen spoke up, grinning. "Teresa is a very nice young lady, but I'm not anywhere near ready to settle down."

"Scott and Johnny keep telling me that," Murdoch growled. He looked at his pocket watch. "Speaking of Scott, I wonder where he is."

"Don't worry," Travis assured him. "I think he wants to get home worse than you do."

"Here he comes now," Stephen commented, pointing down the sidewalk. The blond-haired Lancer was walking toward the train, a smile on his face.

"You pushed it pretty close," Murdoch grumbled.

"I had some business to take care of," Scott replied smoothly. "And I wanted to check on the horse."

"We better get on board," his father declared. "The train will be pulling out in a few minutes.

The group exchanged their good-byes and the Lancer party boarded their train. Murdoch sat down in his seat and waved out the window at his friend and his family. He had missed Travis over the years but he had to admit, he was anxious to get home to Lancer. Murdoch was beginning to get those 'weird' feelings that Scott had been talking about a day earlier. He could
not put a finger on it, but he knew it was imperative that they get home in time for this first Christmas as a family.


Scott sat back, closing his eyes as he listened to the wheels of the train as they hit the track. Finally, after too many days of uncertainty, they were on there way back to Lancer, to home, and to Johnny.

The blond opened his eyes and reached over for the bag at his feet. He took out a pad of paper and a pencil and started a letter to his grandfather, one that was quite overdue. Scott had some questions that required answers only the gray haired man back east could answer, though frankly he doubted he would get a straight answer one way or the other.

"I thought this day would never come," Murdoch said quietly, shifting in his seat. "I hope Johnny got the herd moved okay."

"I'm sure it went off without a hitch," Scott replied. He looked over at Teresa who had fallen asleep shortly after the train had taken off and back at his father. "I'm surprised you haven't asked me anything more about what happened between Stephen and me."

"I know you'll tell me," Murdoch responded. "When you're ready."

"He worked for my grandfather," Scott explained. "I fired him because grandfather told me he was stealing from the company. Later I found out it was a lie, a ruse used to get rid of him, but it was too late."

"I'm sorry, Scott." Murdoch knew his son must have beaten himself up when he found out the truth.

"It goes beyond that, Murdoch." Scott said angrily. "Grandfather...he had him blacklisted. Every time Stephen would apply for a position, grandfather would find a way to make sure that he did not get the job."

"But he told Travis that he has a very good job," Murdoch said confused. "And that he's investing his profits wisely."

"I knew someone who was looking for an employee," Scott confessed. "Someone hard working and honest, who just needed a chance. Preferably someone who could stand up to my grandfather. I recommended Stephen right before left to come to California."

"He doesn't know that," Murdoch guessed. "Does he?"

"No," the blond replied. "Better that he thinks he got it on his own merit. He would have, anyway, if it wasn't for my grandfather's meddling."

"I'm very proud of you, Scott," the gray-haired man told his son. "You made a mistake, but you weren't above admitting you were wrong, and even took action to correct the situation."

"Thank you, Murdoch." The young rancher felt a sense of pride at his father's words. Even though they had been gone from Lancer for nineteen days, it felt as if just yesterday he had been worried about spending time alone with his father. The two of them had come a long way in working out the differences within them and the past. Scott said a silent prayer that Johnny would be afforded the same opportunities he had with Murdoch and that he too, would hear those words, that their father was just as proud of him.


Thankfully, they had once again procured one of the three hotel cars on the train, a gift from Travis, no doubt. Murdoch's back could have been used as a medical excuse, but it Scott was glad that they had not had to resort to such a tactic. Murdoch's pride would have taken a beating at being labeled decrepit.  

A few minutes before six, there was a knock at the door. Scott answered it, only to be surprised to find the porter bearing a cart yielding several large serving dishes and a bottle of champagne on ice.

"I'm sorry, Sir, but you must have the wrong car. We didn't order dinner," Scott said politely.

"Yes, we did," Murdoch chimed in from behind.

After easing Scott out of the way with a light hand on his shoulder, Murdoch took over. "You can bring that right in here," he said with a wave of his hand.

"Murdoch?" Scott asked, but was waved off by a grinning father.

The porter smiled, and pushed the cart over by the bench seat next to the window. With practiced precision, he had the meal set out in a matter of minutes. "Enjoy your meal," he said as he headed for the door. Murdoch handed the man a tip, and the happy porter left with a smile on his face.

"Happy Birthday, Scott!" Teresa squealed and hugged him tightly.

Murdoch chuckled and waited for Scott to free himself of his sister's embrace. Once that was accomplished, he held out his hand. "Happy Birthday, Son," he said with pride.

Scott, still a bit stunned, accepted his father's hand, only to find himself pulled into a fatherly hug. For a moment he savored the rare contact, the rare display of paternal affection that he had longed for all his life. "Happy Birthday, Son," his father said again, and then let his arms fall away. "I'm sorry we couldn't be celebrating at home, but this is all we could arrange."

"It's fine, Sir," Scott choked back the lump in his throat. Using manners as a disguise, he helped Teresa get settle for dinner, and then he and Murdoch sat down. "I was hoping you wouldn't make a fuss. Even if it's late, I would rather celebrate my birthday back at the ranch."

"We understand, Son." The look in Murdoch's eyes showed that he really did, too. "But we couldn't not do something to mark this day."

"Thank you," Scott turned to Teresa. "Both of you. For understanding that it just wouldn't be the same without Johnny."

"And we didn't bring any of your presents, since we were supposed to be back home long before now." Teresa's face lit up. "We won't get back in time for Johnny's birthday on the twenty-third, either. We could celebrate both birthdays on the same day...the day after Christmas?"

Murdoch sighed. "Honey, Christmas is on Sunday. I'm sure that Johnny has got the ranch under control, but with both Scott and I away for so long, there is bound to be a backlog of chores that need doing. How about the following Saturday?"

"A birthday/New Year's Eve celebration! We can make it a huge party for everyone." From that moment on, Teresa was consumed with party plans.

Murdoch and Scott shared a look or resigned acceptance. Neither was willing to burst the young woman's bubble, not after the disappointments of the few weeks. Teresa chattered on, all through dinner, asking the men's opinions every now and then about what to serve or who to invite.

Later, the champagne was uncorked. Teresa was allowed to have a glass, but only because it was a special occasion. Toasts were made and then the threesome settled in for the night.

Teresa was busy party planning, while Murdoch tried to read a book Travis had loaned him for the trip. As for Scott, he sat by the window, watching the shadowy scenery slipping by in the moonlight. His thoughts were of home, of his brother, and of a birthday gift he wished he had with him, one that had been received too early because of an ambiguous notation in someone else's family Bible.


Lancer -

Johnny studied the document in front of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jeff standing at the French doors, looking out at the horses in the corral. He found himself becoming lost in the technical jargon of the engineers report. He should be able to do this, to understand what all this stuff meant, but he didn't. Murdoch and Scott would, of that he had no doubt.

He cursed his own shortcomings, and the mother who had denied him so much because she was too stubborn to talk to her husband about whatever was bothering her. Murdoch had no idea why she left, of that Johnny was sure. No one could fake the level of confusion and pain that he saw all too often in his father's sad eyes. Like Johnny, all he wanted to know as why, but that was the last answer either one of them would ever get.

"That's the spec page, Johnny."

Startled, Johnny looked up to see Jeff standing next to him, looking over his shoulder. He couldn't believe he had been so deep in thought that the man had been able to just walk up to him without being noticed. Considering what that lapse could have cost him if Jeff Demont had been an enemy, that the subject of his daydream had been his mother seemed very fitting.

"Don't make much sense to me," Johnny admitted. There was little point in denying the truth.

Jeff laughed. "Don't feel too bad. It wouldn't make much sense to most people." Leaning forward, nimble fingers flipped through the pages they had prepared the day before. "Here's the summary section. It's written in laymen's terms. Those specs are more for other engineers than the client the documents are written for."

"Why go through all that trouble?" Johnny inquired as he began reading something that actually made sense. "You're doing the work."

Another cheery laugh was followed by a hand coming to rest on Johnny's shoulder. "That's only because my firm is set up to do the whole job, from start to finish. Most engineering firms would just write up the specifications for the job, and then whatever construction company was hired would need those spec pages for the detailed parts of the job."

"I guess 'the man said to put it there' wouldn't be good enough?" Johnny asked with a grin.

"No, not hardly." Jeff moved around to the front of the desk and sat down. "Although there are some people who would do just that. Disaster usually follows, and depending on the type of job, it can be deadly."

This remark instantly sobered Johnny's mood. He had seen first hand the carnage of those kinds of disasters. There had been other such events near him in the past, but none that he had affected him so much. The sights and smells from the site of the train trestle collapse still haunted his dreams. Those eyes, blue and green and brown, all of them looking cold in death. He shuddered.

"Johnny?" Jeff asked in concern.

"Sorry," Johnny mumbled, but would not meet the engineer's. "It's sad that people like you can do so much to make things work right, only to have some loco fool tear it down for money. Ain't no amount of money worth that many lives."

"Are you talking about the trestle collapse up at McKinney pass? I heard that a large number of the rescue workers came from this area. Were you one of them?"

"Yeah," Johnny nodded, wishing he had not brought up the subject. He had, though, so there was no choice but to answer.

"I helped design the footers for that structure," Jeff said solemnly. "They should have held, even under the weight of that ice."

"Maybe they would have, if they hadn't got a little help fallin' down."

Jeff's green eyes grew dark. "What kind of help?"

Johnny suddenly got he feeling that he was treading on dangerous territory, but he didn't care. He had seen the cut timbers. That accident was no accident. "Someone went to a lot of trouble to make sure that bridge wouldn't hold up under that train."

"The railroad is threatening to file legal actions against all the engineers involved. They are claiming that the ice was sole cause of the incident. My attorney's are in Sacramento now, trying to get specifics from the railroad, but the last I heard, the railroad was refusing to let them even look at the crash site."

Not surprising, Johnny thought. The beady-eyed men that had taken over the wreck site had not given the impression of being too concerned with anything that didn't put money in the railroad's pockets, which meant money in their pockets, too. "Jeff, I don't know nothin' about this kind of stuff," Johnny said as he pointed to the technical spec sheet of the Lancer bridge. "Maybe that bridge would have come down anyway. I don't know, but what I do know is that wood don't break that clean. Some of those timbers were cut through. And there was some dynamite found, too."

"Those greedy bastards!" the irate engineer growled. "They're going to ruin a lot of good men, me and Mac included, if those lies hold up." He looked directly at Johnny. "Would you be willing to testify in court to what you saw, if it should come to that?"

"I can testify to the timbers being cut, but I didn't see the explosives. Just heard about them."

"From whom?"

Johnny hesitated. He didn't want to cause any trouble for the marshal. It wasn't his place to name names, especially when he felt that the information had been told to him in confidence. Then again, he felt he understood Marshall Canton pretty well, and did not think the lawman would hesitate to set the record straight.

"There was a US Marshal on the scene."

"Marshal Canton," was impatiently interjected by the tense man across the desk. At Johnny's raised eyebrow, Jeff elaborated. "His name was provided to my attorneys. He's the one who found the explosives, isn't he?"

"Yep," Johnny acknowledged. If Demont's attorneys were worth their salt, they would be tracking Jack down, and quick. There was still no doubt in Johnny's mind that the marshal would not hesitate to reveal all he knew. "He told me about it, but it was just between us."

Jeff nodded his understanding. "I'm not asking you to betray a confidence, Johnny."

"Wouldn't, even if you was asking," Johnny clipped. "The marshal was pretty upset by the railroad people when they came in and took over. He'd tell the truth, if he was asked for it." Johnny looked at Jeff directly in the eye. "Even if he wasn't asked, if he knew what them vultures was trying to do. He's a good man."

Across the desk, Jeff took a couple of deep breaths. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that he wouldn't."

"You didn't. I just wanted to make sure you knew what kind of man he is. I don't want to see him getting hurt for doing his job."

"My attorney's won't do anything to harm him or his name, Johnny." Standing, Jeff walked back over to the French doors. Without turning around, he began speaking. "Mac wasn't too keen on the idea of taking this job. With the suit from the railroad hanging over our heads, he wanted to stick closer to San Francisco."

"Sounds reasonable. So, why'd you agree to go against him?"

Jeff turned, his expression a mixture of anger and determination. "Because this is why I became and engineer. I admit that I like to build things, to create a work of art, knowing that it will be there for many years to come. Mostly, though, I wanted to make things right. To put an end to bad construction practices and design flaws that were leading to death and heartache. Progress doesn't have to be deadly, not if it is done right and with a little bit of common sense."

Johnny understood this feeling all too well. This was the very reason he could not put back up that wooden bridge. Cattle had been lost this time; it could be a man or two or even more the next time. His name was on this ranch, and he could not, would not, sit by and let that happen. Not when it could be avoided by spending a little money.

"Gracias," Johnny said softly.

*** *** *** ***

It was late. The grandfather clock had already chimed eleven o'clock, but had not yet heralded in the midnight hour. Johnny was sitting on the sofa in front of the fire, his socked feet propped up on the coffee table. A bottle of champagne sat on the table, untouched, but the brandy bottle next to it was nearly empty.

Today was Scott's birthday.

Johnny laughed out loud. "The second one this year, Brother," he said to the empty room. Reaching for the bottle of brandy, he poured himself another generous serving. "Only I was gonna get it right this time," he choked before taking a swig from the bottle instead of the glass.

He still remembered that fateful September day. A few weeks earlier, one day at the end of August, Teresa had snagged him into helping her move some trunks down from the attic. While he was up there, he had knocked over a stack of boxes, and one had broke open. While he was repacking the contents, he picked up a Bible that had landed open. He almost snapped it shut, before he saw Scott's name written on one of the page. By his name was written 'September thirtieth'. Johnny had assumed that was the day Scott was born.

He had started planning a birthday surprise for his brother, which included the bottle of champagne Señor Baldermero had managed to get shipped in from a big store in San Francisco. One day when they had been fooling around, Scott had mentioned this particular brand, and only that brand would be right.

Johnny probably would not have even remembered it if Scott hadn't had such a feral grin on his face when he stated that he had been drinking a glass of the bubbly brew only minutes before the Pinkerton detective had approached him with Murdoch's offer to come to California. Scott had refused to say any more, but Johnny knew there had to be something else to the story. His plan had been to get the memories flowing, and with a few drinks under his belt, his brother's mouth flowing, too.

Things had not worked out that way.

When the morning of September thirtieth had arrived, Johnny suddenly felt very self-conscious about his gift. Not the champagne, but the one he had made. When he had first started the project, it had been only a distraction to keep his frustrations at bay while he was recovering from the bullet wound he had gotten during the gun battle with Pardee's gang. As soon as he
was allowed to get up and about, the simple task was all but forgotten. Until that day in August.

The project had been reclaimed; with a specific goal in mind, he had put his best efforts into transforming the raw materials into a gift that he hoped would convey just how important his brother had become to him. It wasn't something that Johnny had thought about, or had seen coming, either, it just was. From that first day, when he had sought out Scott in his assigned
bedroom because of an urge he could not explain, Johnny had felt the need to build a relationship with this man. They were brothers, they were family, and they were both finding out things that were not easy to hear. He had needed his brother, and that was a feeling that Johnny had never felt before. It scared him, but at the same time, it gave him hope, too.

With trepidation, he had presented the gift to Scott during an impromptu visit to Scott's bedroom on the morning of September thirtieth. Johnny had made a habit out of popping in, uninvited and without knocking, at least a couple of times a week. He would make himself at home, while Scott went about getting dressed. His intention had never been to be nuisance, though Scott's expressions over his refusal to knock first had become a source of amusement for both of them. No, this was just part of his need, and Scott seemed to accept it without complaint, and maybe even recognize it as a need of his own, too.

The brothers shared things during these few minutes in the morning that they did not dare share later on, when other ears could be listening. Johnny could voice his uncertainties, as could Scott, knowing that their trust in the other would be met with neither ridicule nor judgment. They did not always see eye to eye on everything, as they had not about the partnership paper that had prompted Johnny's first visit to Scott's room, but they could be open and honest about what they did or did not believe. What was said in that room, stayed in that room.

Scott had been very surprised by the awkwardly offered gift, but when he opened it, Johnny could tell just from the look on his face that presenting it during their time had been the right thing to do. Scott had stared at the folded leather, his fingers tracing the detailed designs that had been tooled into its smooth surface. For a long time he said nothing, then he looked up, his gray-blue eyes hiding nothing as they stared at Johnny. "It's magnificent, Johnny," he had said softly. Then the confusion appeared, and the unspoken 'why' hung in the air.

"It's for your birthday." Johnny had shrugged nervously at the strange reaction he was getting.

It had taken a trip to the breakfast table and an admission from Johnny to get the confusion cleared up, but in the end it had turned out that the 'Scott' mentioned in the Bible Johnny had found was not even a Lancer. The Bible had been Paul's, was now Teresa's, and that particular 'Scott' was her father's uncle, who had died when he was just a baby, on September thirtieth. Murdoch recalled Paul mentioning that it was strange that his grandmother had omitted the year when she was making the entry in the family heirloom, but no one had ever seen fit to change it. With that, the mystery was solved.

No one else had ever found out about the gift given at the wrong time, and the next morning, Scott had offered to return it until it could be given on the right day. Johnny declined, saying that it wouldn't be the same, since Scott already knew what it was. Another brotherly moment had been shared when Johnny said he wanted Scott to keep it and use it; wouldn't do Scott any good just sitting around in a drawer. Besides, they were brothers; they didn't need a formal reason to show their appreciation for each other.

In the darkness, the fire popped loudly, startling Johnny and bringing him back out of the past. In the corner was the gift he had intended to give to Scott that morning. The saddle was store bought, but he had done the tooling on the leather himself. It was simple, but bold. Nothing too fancy for Scott's reserved tastes. Johnny had worked on it for weeks, hurrying to get done when Murdoch told them about the trip to Denver.

Instead of gracing Charlemagne's back, it sat over the arm of the chair in the corner. Shrouded in darkness, just as Johnny's heart felt. He looked down at the bottle of brandy leaning against his leg, his fingers curled tightly around the neck. He eyes shifted to the glass in his other hand, and a weak smile tugged at his lips. "Seein' as Boston ain't here to mind..."

He downed the remaining brandy in the glass and then lifted the bottle into the air to toast the brother who was not there. "Feliz Cumpleaños, Hermano." The bottle was pressed to his lips and he took several large gulps. After swallowing the bitter drink, he choked, "I miss you."

When he leaned forward to put the bottle back on the table, the amount of alcohol he had consumed that night caught up to him and he missed judged the distance. The brandy bottle tipped over and rolled across the flat surface, falling off the side and landing on the floor with a crash. Johnny stared at the trail of brandy that had been left on the table, unable to take his eyes off of it as it slowly drained over the side, as if chasing after the bottle from which it had come.

When the clock struck five o'clock the next morning, Johnny would still be staring at the tabletop. The path of liquid would be almost dried, but the sense loss over a treasured moment in time that should have been shared with is brother would still be lingering in Johnny's mind.      

Tuesday, December 20, 1870:

Denver -

Murdoch was reading a book, one that Scott had brought with him but never got a chance to read. He turned the page, but looked up, watching Teresa sitting on the other side of the car. She was busy writing; , her guardian smiled to himself, he had no doubts as to whom the letter would be addressed. It was a new idea, but not one Murdoch was adverse to.

Murray MacPherson was certainly an honorable and just young man, and Murdoch knew that he could not have picked a better man for his young ward to marry; and that was exactly where this was headed, barring any unforeseen circumstances. Travis had told him before they left Denver that Murray had confided in Travis that if Teresa agreed to marry him come next summer, that he would be relocating so that she could stay close to her family.

Who would have guessed all those years ago when he and Travis had decided to leave everyone and everything they loved that it would come to this. His oldest friend's son and his ward, a daughter to him in every way that was important, were just a step away from being engaged. Murdoch hoped that when the time came that they would want to get married at the ranch. He had visions of the perfect place for the ceremony, and he knew the perfect gift to give them.

Last summer one of the neighboring ranchers had offered him fifty acres of land that ran adjacent to Lancer. He had bought it with the intention of giving it to Teresa as a wedding present when she finally found the man of her dreams. Murdoch knew Teresa wanted to stay close to home, and he intended to give her something that would enable her to stay.

He frowned. This decision was not his alone to make. Not anymore.

Private funds had not been used to purchase the land; that had been done with ranch profits from last year. While it was true that his sons had not been his partners at the time, the land was included in the assets that were now part of the partnership. He made a mental note to add this to the discussion he intended to have with Scott and Johnny about the future plans for the ranch. Murdoch did not really think there would be any real conversation over what he had planned for the land; both of his sons considered Teresa to be there sister, and he was sure neither of them would object to giving her the land that could keep her close to home.

On the other end of the car, Scott was sitting by the window, busy writing a letter of his own. Murdoch wondered if he was writing to Amanda. His son certainly had been enamored with the young woman, but frankly he hoped that Scott was not serious about her. Amanda had seemed to be a very nice woman, but Murdoch was not stupid. He knew exactly what she and his son had been doing. He had hopes that when Scott decided to settle down, that he would choose a woman who would be better suited to ranching; someone like Catherine.

Yes, Scott's mother had fit right in, from the very beginning. He could still remember the team of horses and wagon they had used to bring their belongings to the ranch. The wheels had barely stopped moving before his young bride was on the ground, talking with enthusiasm about how happy they were going to be. There was not one time that Murdoch could remember her ever saying she regretted their decision to buy a ranch and move out west. There had only been one time she had seemed more sure of herself; the day she had told him she was expecting Scott.

He had come home from a hard day out on the range, feeling quite like fair-haired son must have his first few weeks at Lancer. Murdoch was discouraged and ready to quit, sure that he had made a mistake to even think he could make this land worth anything. He walked into the house to be greeted with dinner on the table on the fancy dishware Catherine had carefully packed and brought with them from Boston. She quickly ushered him to the table and then quietly told him the news. It was the light in her eyes, the glow on her face, the utter vision of radiance that made him realize he could not let her down. He became determined to make Lancer a success so that he would have a legacy to leave to his son or daughter. If only Catherine had lived, how different things would have turned out.

Instantly, he shook his head at that thought. There was no way he could wish for things to be different, not at the expense of his younger son. At times he still missed Catherine so much that it felt like his heart would explode, but he would never trade Johnny to have her back, and she would never have wanted that. His sons were different as night and day in a lot of ways but he respected each of them for their uniqueness.

"The book must not be very interesting," Scott remarked, looking up from his writing.

"No, it is actually very good," Murdoch replied honestly, marking the page in the book and closing it. "I'm just too anxious to get home to concentrate."

"I know the feeling," Scott admitted frustrated he dropped the pad of paper. "I've started this letter a million times, but I keep getting sidetracked with thoughts of being back at Lancer."

"I should write a letter to Travis," Murdoch sighed. He was missing his old friend already. "I need to thank him for taking us in and showing us such a good time."

"That's a good idea," Scott nodded. "When I get finished with my letter to grandfather, I should write one myself."

"You're not asking him for money again, I..." Murdoch stopped, raising his hand before Scott could speak. "Old habits die hard. I'm sorry, Son. What goes on between you and your grandfather is your business."

"I'm not asking him for money, just answers," Scott sighed. "There are some questions I need answered, and he's the only one who can provide them."

"Son," Murdoch leaned forward, looking his son straight in the eyes. "If it's about the past, why don't you let it go. There's nothing that can be done to change it now."

"I know," Scott replied quietly. "I just need to know why he did the things he did."

"I understand," Murdoch said sympathetically. "But before you mail it, promise me one thing. Think about if knowing those answers is worth possibly losing what you have with your grandfather."

"Is there something you haven't told me," Scott demanded.  

”No," his father assured him. "I just don't want to see you hurt by either of us, not anymore than you already have been."

"Thank you, Murdoch." Scott picked up the pad of paper once more. "It's hard to write what I wish I could say in person. If I could see his face, I'd know if he was being honest with me"

"What do you want to ask him?" Murdoch asked. "That is if you don't mind telling me."

"Why he felt the need to keep me from knowing you," Scott said frustrated.

"Maybe he thought he was protecting you." Murdoch suggested.

"Whatever his reasons might have been," Scott insisted. "I need to hear them from him."

"I'm going to the dining car," Murdoch announced. He knew it was useless to argue with Scott once he had his mind set on something. "Do you want me to bring you anything?"

"No," Scott shook his head. "I'm going to finish this letter, and then I think I'm going to sleep."

"I'll go with you, Murdoch." Teresa stood up, putting away her paper and writing utensil. "I'm starved."


Scott laid in bed, thinking about the envelope he had carefully stowed away in his overnight bag and what it contained. Travis had given it to him shortly before he left the house the day before and asked him if he would pass it on to Johnny. He had accepted the letter without hesitation, but that changed when he noticed that it was addressed to 'Johnny Madrid'. He had politely informed his host that although 'Madrid' would always be a part of who Johnny was, he went by 'Lancer' now, because that was who he wanted to be most.

Travis had requested a few moments of his time to tell him a story. They had retreated into the parlor, where he proceeded to explain once again that his wife had died in an unfortunate accident involving a stage that had turned over and rolled down an embankment. This time, he spoke of the young man who had happened along the accident, finding only Bessie and the driver still alive.

Jake, the stagecoach driver had broken his leg. The dark-haired man had done what he could to splint the leg, then had turned his full attention to the dying woman. The driver had told Travis when he went to claim his wife's body that she had been scared, terrified of dying alone. The young gunfighter had sat and held her hand through the night, not leaving her side until she was gone. At one point, he had removed the chain from around his neck, placing the medallion in her hand so that she would have something religious to hold onto. Once daylight came, the gunfighter had gone for help. The driver never saw him again, but when he got to town and asked around about the young kid who had helped them, he had learned that his name was Johnny Madrid.

Scott had been stunned by the story, which further linked the two families together, but not surprised. It sounded just like the sort of thing his brother would do. Travis' had gone on to say that when Johnny had gone for help, his medallion was still in Bessie's hand. That was what was in the envelope. He wanted to return it to Johnny, along with a letter of gratitude, as inadequate as mere words seemed. He could never begin to repay the young man for what he had done for Bessie, nor could he explain the peace of mind those actions had given the husband left behind; just knowing that his wife had not died alone.

A short time later, Scott heard his father and Teresa return to the room, but he kept his eyes closed feigning sleep. This was something he would not be able to share with them. It would be Johnny's decision as to whether or not he wanted them to know. Some things were hard for his brother to share and Scott had a feeling this would be one of those things. Maybe one day, when Travis was part of the family.

He smiled at the thought of the birthday gift he had waiting for his brother back at the ranch. He had wanted something special for their first birthday together, something that would make up for all the birthdays that they had been denied. He couldn't wait to see the look on Johnny's face, even if it was a few days late.

A few days. A few more day and they would be home. The first thing he wanted to do was saddle up their horses and go riding. Scott did not care where they went as long as they could ride with the wind. It was one of the best parts of Lancer, being able to ride as fast and as far as you wanted and still be at home.

Murdoch and Teresa turned out the lamps and settled in for the night. Scott stared out into the darkness for a while, then closed his eyes again. This time he saw Johnny sitting on Barranca, and that same sense of dread came back to him. There was something wrong back home and it had to do with his brother. He did not doubt that for a minute. He could only hope that whatever it was that it was not too serious. Johnny could attract trouble with the best, but he could usually handle it just as well. Scott drifted off to sleep, his last thought settling on how even though his brother could handle just about any situation, he should not have to, not alone, not anymore.  


Lancer -

After waking that morning and feeling like he was more dead than alive, Johnny came to the conclusion that something had to give. He could not continue brooding over things that could not be changed. He had never lived this way before. While he cleaned up the remnants of what he was determined would be his last night of drowning his sorrows in booze, he took stock of all that had happened, and how he had reacted. He did not like what he saw. He did not think his family would either.

He could not even remember the last friendly chat he had shared with one of the men, or the last time anyone had not acted like they were walking on eggshells whenever he was around. The same hands that had once considered him more friend than boss, were now sticking around just long enough to get their daily orders before hightailing it out as fast as they could.

Heading for the kitchen, Johnny snagged the broom from the pantry. His best bet was to have the broken brandy bottle swept up before Maria could get there and see the sorry state into which he had let himself fall. Upon returning to the great room, he just rounded the corner of the coffee table, when he stepped in something sticky on the floor. There was a sound like tearing paper as he lifted his foot, his sock sticking to the mess, leaving a thin layer of fuzz behind in the sticky goo.

"Don't remember spilling anything over here," Johnny grumbled, then swore a few choice curses when his sock wanted to stick to the floor wherever he stepped. In a fit of frustration, he yanked the soiled sock from off his foot and hurled it into the corner. Taking a deep breath, he steadied his nerves. "No! I ain't gonna let this get to me no more," he warned himself.

A little to his own surprise, he managed to get the rest of his mess cleaned up without any further outbursts of anger. In the kitchen he found the basket of freshly laundered clothes that Maria had yet to take up to his room. This time they were all his so he grabbed up the basket and carried it with him back into the great room, where he traded the dirty pile that had been accumulating in the corner with the clean ones that he laid in a neat pile on the far end of the love seat.

The only thing left was Scott's birthday present.

Johnny stared at the saddle. Should he just leave it there, or should he take it back to the tack room where he had been hiding it all these weeks? His left hand raised and his finger traced the design that had been the most difficult and time consuming part. On the horn he had tooled an oak tree, the trunk emerging from the gullet, up the swell to the horn. The branches swept across the flat part of the horn. It was unusual, but he thought it had turned out very nice.

The tree idea had come to him when he was trying to find a place to hide the gift while it was tooled and until Scott's birthday. On that particular morning, Scott and Murdoch had been discussing something or another when Johnny had arrived at the table for breakfast. He had just slipped into his chair when Scott issued Murdoch what Johnny had thought sounded like a challenge.

'The best place to hide a tree is in the forest, Sir'," his brother had said, fork in the air before he rather triumphantly speared a piece of sausage. Scott bade Johnny a good morning, plopped the bit of meat into his mouth, and the rest of breakfast had progressed as it always had – Murdoch explaining what he wanted them to do that day, and them agreeing to do it. However, it was then that Johnny knew exactly where he would hide Scott's gift - in the tack room!

Scott always kept his saddle on the rack to the left, just inside the door. Johnny figured if he arranged it right, he could put the new saddle in the opposite corner, use a blanket or two for cover, and no one would ever notice. They hadn't, and his gift had remained a secret. The tree on the horn would be a constant reminder of how Scott's own advice had kept him in the dark of where to find his present.  

"Stop it!" Johnny snarled at himself again. "You're acting like a scared little kid, afraid of being left alone in the dark." He tossed one of his shirts over the saddle and walked away, more determined than ever to get himself back on the right track.

*** *** *** ***

"Gracias, Juanito."

Looking up from the bridge report that he had suddenly felt the need to go over one more time, Johnny saw Cipriano standing in the archway to the kitchen. There was an easy smile on the segundo's face, something that had been missing for too many days. He did not have to guess what had put it there, either. Maria had all but hugged him to death after he had eaten not only breakfast, but a hearty dinner only an hour ago, as well.

He waited for the older man to cross the room and sit down in what Johnny was beginning to view as 'Cip's chair'. "I'm sorry for the way I been acting," he apologized. "It'll be okay now, usted tiene mi palabra."

Cipriano's smile faltered. "It is not you word I want, Juanito. You own me nothing. It is for you that you need to let your spirit to heal, to regain the passion it once had for this place."

Johnny sighed. That was the one thing he did not think he could do, but hopefully the rest would make up for it. Maybe in time he would feel differently. "It'll be fine, Compadre." He smiled and hoped it would reassure his friend. "This chair ain't all that easy to fill. Takes some gettin' used to, and not just cause the old man's backside is bigger than mine."

"You are doing fine, Juanito." Cipriano's smile got bigger. "I have heard this from many people. They have been worried at how you have been distancing yourself, but they see that your decisions are sound, that your heart rules your head when it should."

The sincerely spoken words made Johnny feel even more ashamed for his lapse. He could not change the past; never had been able to, and God knows he had wanted nothing more at time or two. Swallowing the lump in his throat he did the only think he knew to do - change the subject.

"That blasting man is gonna be here tomorrow. He wants to get that pass blown out before Christmas, so everything can get settle before they start building."

"When will the be?" Cipriano asked.

Johnny frowned. "Depends on the weather, mostly. Mr. Demont already wired the order to San Francisco. They're gonna have a to ship in the iron pieces, and then put 'em together down tat the river. Sounded complicated, but Mr. Demont seems to know what he's doing."

Cipriano nodded his agreement. "I rode by that pass again today. It is going to be very good, this plan."

"I hope so, Cip." The despair began creeping back over him, but Johnny pushed it away. "That engineer knows cattle, too." With a cheeky grin he added, "Thinks they're ugly and smelly and downright dumb."

A hearty laugh filled the room. "Sí, they are all those things," Cipriano agreed.

"So, why do we do it?" Johnny asked. "Why don't we raise something that ain't all those things? Something that ain't half bad to look at."

Teasing brown eyes stared back at him. "Do you have something in mind, Juanito?"

"Maybe." Feeling more like himself, Johnny grinned. "Scott told me about some birds the got back in Boston, or maybe it was all over back East. They're called peacocks, and they got these real big tail feathers that kind of trail along behind 'em. Then, when they're feeling their oats, they stretch 'em out so they look like one of fancy fans the rich donas use for cooling off, and smacking hands."

"Are they as good for eating as our ugly cattle?" the ever-practical man asked.

Johnny frowned. "Don't know. Scott didn't say nothing about what they was good for. He just said the hung around in parks and such, acting all cocky and getting feed by people passing by. I guess we oughta stick with cattle?"

"Sí, Señor," Cipriano agreed. "I do not believe your Barranca would care for chasing around pretty birds."

"Nope," Johnny chuckled. "Barranca things he's perty enough."

The grandfather clock began chiming, only this time the sound was more soothing than grating. "Gracias, Amigo," Johnny smiled at the man across the desk.

"Things will be good, Juanito. You will see." Cipriano departed, headed home to the happy wife that was no longer missing from his life.

Johnny put the bridge report back into the drawer and then returned to the sofa. He watched the flames die as the night grew old. This time, however, it was hot coffee and good thoughts that warmed his insides, not the intoxicating effects of fermented grain and bitter frustrations.   

Wednesday, December 21, 1870:

Denver -

Teresa folded her letter and put it in the envelope ready for mailing when they reached their stop in Oregon. She smiled to herself as she thought of the young man back in Denver. Murray had assured her before she left that nothing would keep him from coming to the ranch next summer. The excited young woman could not wait for Johnny to meet Murray. She knew her brother would approve of him, not that she needed his approval, but it was important to her that the man she wanted to marry got along well with all of her family.

Her mind drifted back to their last night in Denver. The young couple had been in the sitting room, discussing the future. Murray had told her that when he came to Lancer next summer that he intended to stay in the area. He wanted to find a job, court Teresa properly, and, after a suitable amount of time had passed, he wanted to marry her, if she would have him. Teresa could still remember how that moment felt. It was like her whole life had suddenly opened up like a blossoming flower. With all the calm she could muster, she had smiled invitingly, allowing him to kiss her, and then telling him that she wanted that more than anything.

Teresa's fingers went unconsciously to the necklace she wore under her clothing. It had a cross on it her father had given her for her last birthday. That night she had added the engagement ring Murray had given her to it. Even though they knew in their hearts they loved each other and nothing would change that, they also knew Travis and Murdoch would want them to slow down and take their time. With that in mind, they had decided to keep their news and their plans to themselves for a while.

Teresa looked up as Scott returned from a brief walk around the train. He noticed right away that Murdoch was still sleeping and moved cautiously, so as not to make any noise that would disturb him.

"He's been sleeping a long time," Teresa whispered when Scott sat down beside her. "Do you think we should wake him up?"

"No. Let him sleep," Scott replied. "I heard him get up a couple times during the night."

"I think he's bored with the train ride," Teresa suggested.

"It already seems like forever," Scott admitted. "It was like that when I first came to Lancer. There was way too much time to think about what was going to happen when I got there."

"What did you think Murdoch wanted when he sent for you?" She had always been curious, but until now, had not felt comfortable asking him.

"I honestly did not have a clue," Scott admitted. "All I knew was he wanted to talk to me, and offered me a thousand dollars and to pay my way to California."

"Was it the money that made you come?" Teresa mused.

"No. I came for a lot of reasons." Scott looked out the window, and then back at the young woman that had come to mean so much to him. "At the time I convinced myself I was going for a change. I had been feeling trapped in Boston and I just wanted to get away." He paused to regroup his thoughts. "Once I got here and met Murdoch, I was able to be truthful with myself. I
wanted to know if there was a place for me in his life."

"I'm surprised you didn't turn and leave that first day," Teresa smiled sadly. "He didn't give either of one you much of a reason to stay."

"Actually, it was what he didn't say that convinced me," Scott admitted. "I could tell his gruff manner was a facade. I just hoped that it was covering up a longing and hope that we would give him a chance."

"You're very perceptive," Teresa observed. "Murdoch is a master at hiding his feelings."

"Johnny's even better," Scott reflected. "It took me a bit longer to realize that he was hiding behind Madrid to keep from getting hurt."

"I thought you two were never going to become friends," Teresa admitted. "After the two of you beat the land pirates, you stayed away from each other."

"I was busy learning the ranch and Johnny was recuperating." Scott explained. "There was so much to deal with and learn. I didn't want to add to his stress. As hard as it was for me to adjust, in some ways it was more difficult for him."

"Do you think he'll stay," Teresa asked the question that she often wondered.

"Yes," Scott replied with certainty. "Johnny isn't the same person anymore that he was then. He's no longer alone in the world. He has family, a place to come home to. He'll hang on to that with all his might."

"What about you?"

"I made my decision when Murdoch offered me a third of Lancer," Scott informed her. "I haven't felt this alive since before the war." He put his arm around her in comfort. "I have no intentions of ever going back to Boston. I had a good childhood and I'm grateful to my grandfather for a lot of things, but the ranch is where I belong."


Murdoch and Scott sat in the dining car eating dinner. Teresa had declined to join them, claiming she was tired and wanted to take a nap. They had promised to bring her something when they returned.

"When do you thinks she's going to tell us?" Murdoch asked his son, taking a drink of his coffee.

"Who's going to tell us what?" Scott replied confused. He really hated it when his father came out with these cryptic sentences as if he could read his mind.

"Teresa," Murdoch continued. "When's she going to tell us about her and Murray."

"Ah," Scott replied. "You mean their plans to get married."

"She told you?" Murdoch frowned. It seemed he was the last one to know everything lately.

"Teresa isn't aware that I know," Scott explained. "Amanda and I were at the jewelry store when Murray came in to pick up the ring."

"I think she's a bit young to think about marriage," Murdoch frowned. "Don't get me wrong, I like Murray. I couldn't have picked out someone better, but Teresa needs to be sure."

"Murdoch," Scott grinned. "They aren't going to see each other for six months. When Murray comes to visit he's planning on getting a job and courting her first."

"Still, I had hoped she would take her time,"

"Let me give you some advice," Scott offered. "Don't tell any of this to Teresa, or else you're going to have one angry young woman on your hands."

"Teresa has always listened to me," his father protested.

"I know," Scott agreed. "But you've never talked about the man she's in love with before." He saw the look of disbelief on Murdoch's face. "I've watched the two of them together and I have to tell you, I think it's the real thing."

"I'm just not ready to give her up," The rancher complained.

"I don't think your going to have much of a choice," Scott said gently. "I know it's hard for you to accept, but Teresa is not a little girl anymore."

"I know. You're right," Murdoch ran a hand through his hair. "Where did the time go? Just yesterday she was a little girl, bringing freshly picked dandelions to her father and me. She thought they were the most beautiful flowers in the world."

"I picked flowers one time," Scott laughed at the memory. "They were Mrs. O'Donnell's prize roses. I brought them home to Mrs. Hargrove, our housekeeper."

"What did Harlan do?" his father asked curiously.

"He made me go apologize," the blond replied. "And I didn't get an allowance until I had paid her for them."

"Sounds like you were a handful," Murdoch said.

Scott saw the look of regret in his eyes. "I had a good childhood, Murdoch." Scott consoled his father. "You did what you thought was best for me, I understand that now."

"Thank you, Scott." His father said gratefully.

"I think I'm going to head back to car," Scott replied quietly, picking up the plate for Teresa. "I'm sure she's got to be hungry by now."

"I'm ready, too. Let's go," Murdoch agreed.  


Lancer -

"Johnny, this is Peter MacArthur."

Johnny reached out his hand to the man who had just arrived with Jeff. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. MacArthur."

"It's just plain 'Mac'," the bearded man corrected. "Mr. MacArthur is my father."

They all laughed, each one knowing that they had all said that same thing about themselves more than once. Johnny studied the newcomer for a moment. He was taller than Johnny, getting close to being Murdoch's size, only not in bulk. He was a thin, but well-muscled man, with dark hair and a beard to match. He was well groomed, but dressed right for what they were going to be doing. At least for what Johnny thought they would be doing, since he really had no idea.

"I guess you want to ride out to the pass?" he asked hesitantly.

"Absolutely," Mac replied. "Jeff has given me a pretty good idea of what to expect, but he is not a demolition expert. A job like this can be tricky. We want to take down the rock in the middle, without compromising the integrity of the rock face on either side."

"I don't want nobody getting hurt," Johnny stated bluntly. "Not your people, and not mine."

Mac raised an eyebrow but nodded. "Of course. No one ever wants to get men hurt. It happens, though."

The bile rose in Johnny's throat. "Not here. Not like-" Visions of the trestle collapse, all too vivid and all to real, got to him for just a moment. In a split second, he had regained his composure. "Just be careful. Take more time if you have to."

"Mac's the best you'll find on the West coast, Johnny," Jeff quickly interceded on behalf of his partner and friend. "He doesn't want to see anybody get hurt, either."

Johnny nodded. "Sorry, no offense."

"No offense taken," Mac replied. "Don't worry. We'll take all the precautions we can." The blasters next words were harsh and edgy. "The last thing we need is for someone to get hurt on this job."

"Easy, Mac." Jeff placed a hand on his partner's arm. He gave Johnny a questioning look, and at Johnny's nod, added, "Johnny is the man I told you about. The one who saw the cut timbers. He's willing to help us any way he can, but our attorneys are more interested in that marshal. He's the one who saw the explosives."

Mac took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Johnny. I'm letting those cowards get to me."

Being able to relate to the feeling, Johnny waved him off. "Nuf said. And if I was the least bit suspicious that you had something to do with it, I sure wouldn't let you be blasting on my land." The two men exchanged grateful expressions. "Now, you got what you need in that buggy?"

"Got all I need right here," Mac patted his pocket. "Jeff tells me that you've got some very nice horses here. How about we ditch the wagon and do this right?"

Jeff grinned. "Me and Mac grew up together in Wyoming," he explained. "He's not quite as good with horses as I am, but he's still learning."

The two men laughed, and Johnny relaxed in the wake of their easy camaraderie. He thought of Scott, and how they, too, could tease and be serious at the same time. He missed Scott. He missed just knowing he was there, even if they didn't see each other all day.


He looked up to see two pairs of green eyes staring at him. "Sorry, was just..." His voice trailed off. Mentally kicking himself, he threw out his best grin. "You think Mac could handle Dancer?"

"Yes." The disappointment was clear.

"Don't worry, Jeff. I got just the horse for you." At the engineer's bright-eyed expression, Johnny corrected. "No, it ain't Barranca."

*** *** *** ***

After what seemed like forever of walking up one side of the pass, then the  other, climbing up rocks, looking under rocks, and lots of just looking at rocks, but without saying nothing, Johnny's patience had worn thin. "Well? Can it be done?"

"Anything can be done," Mac called over his shoulder. He was kneeling beside a large boulder at the base of the rock wall that needed to be taken down. After another few minutes of looking, he stood up, using his hands to swipe the dust from his knees. "And this can be done quite easily."

The surety in Mac's statement worried Johnny. "Easy things got a tendency of turning hard when you least expect it."

"Yes, they do, but not in this case." The blaster smiled. "Safety is the name of the game, Johnny. I intend to be around for a few more years, so 'careful' is my middle name."

Jeff rolled his eyes. "He is the best, Johnny. Don't make me say that again, because I have to work with him."

Mac snorted and Jeff laughed. Again, Johnny felt read the ease as a sure sign of trust. There was a time when he would not have been capable of trusting others to do a job that he felt was his responsibility, but he had learned a lot about relying on other people, and letting there skills take over when his own were lacking. It had not been easy, and if it had not been for Scott's patience and faith in Johnny.

"All I need is your approval, and I'll get started in the morning." A gloved hand gestured towards the rocky wall. "By Friday that will be gone and you'll have a clear path for those cows. A rough clear path anyway. I'll let mother nature take over until we get here with the materials for the bridge, then while, Jeff is putting the pieces together, you can point out any rough spots, and we'll take care of them."

"Sounds easy enough." Johnny stared at the rock, trying to imagine in his mind what it would look like when the job was finished. He had to admit that driving the beeves through here would make getting them across the river that much easier. They'd be forced to slow down and thin out, without having man and horse beating themselves senseless to get the same thing done.

*** *** *** ***

Johnny knew the instant he saw Cipriano that something was not right. "What's wrong?" he asked as he pulled Barranca to a halt by the corral fence. Jeff and Mac were beside him, Mac on Dancer and Jeff giving Charlemagne some much needed exercise. Johnny had not had time to do anything with Scott's horse, and he knew the chestnut gelding was getting restless. Jeff had a good seat and a light hand, much the same as Scott. Charlie would enjoy the outing, and Jeff definitely appreciated the mount.

"It is Caledonia. He is down."

His father's horse! Johnny was out of the saddle in a flash and headed for the barn door. When he got inside, he found Caledonia laying in his stall. The bald face turned, and the horse nipped at his side, then stretching further back to do the same at his flank.

"He's got the colic."

Forgetting everyone else, Johnny went about taking care of his father's horse. He would never forgive himself if he let something happen to the burly animal that had carried his father so faithfully. Murdoch was not nearly as sentimental towards his horse, like Johnny was with Barranca, and to a slightly lesser extent, like Scott was with Charlemagne, but Johnny had caught the Old Man slipping a carrot or apple into his coat pocket on one too many mornings not to know that he cared for the animal.

Behind him, Johnny heard Jeff's soft-spoken voice. "If you'll show us which stalls to use, Mac and I will take care of these two."

"It is not necessary," Cipriano replied.

Jeff must have won the argument on what was right for a guest to do, because a few minutes later, Cipriano was kneeling down beside Johnny, who was trying to calm Caledonia. The horse was becoming increasingly agitated, which indicated that the pains in his stomach were getting worse.

Lanterns kept the barn lit will into the night. Johnny and Cipriano pooled their knowledge and between the two of them, they did everything possible to save Caledonia. Nothing seemed to work though, and the big gelding became downright mean when the pains became too intense to bear. He snapped repeated at them as they tried to help, and eventually his teeth found flesh high on Johnny's left arm.

"Leave him." Cipriano pulled Johnny out of the stall. "Get Maria to look at your arm, Juanito. See, it is bleeding. I will stay and make sure he does not cast himself in the stall. There is no more we can do."


"Go, Juanito. If the time comes, I will do what has to be done."

"No," Johnny breathed. Then he turned and walked towards the barn door. The cold night air hit him in the face as he made his way back to the house. He knew he was being a coward, but he could not do it. Not now.

Thursday, December 22, 1870:

Denver -

Scott stepped off the train and sighed in relief over the much-needed break from the endless ride. Sometimes it felt as if they would be forever traveling, only to get nowhere. The blond man headed toward the depot, hoping there would be a newspaper available, or anything else new to occupy his time.

He entered the station, he looked to his right and saw nothing more than a vacant bench. However, to his left he spied a stack of papers a counter along the far wall. He headed for his find, when he stopped dead in his tracks.

Scott would know that voice anywhere. Turning, he saw that his ears had been correct, but he still could not believe his eyes.

"Jelly," Scott called out, frowning he walked over to him. "What are you doing here!"

"Scott?!" the grizzled old man responded loudly. "What in tarnation are ya' doin' in Oregon? Yer supposed ta be at the ranch."

"Our train got stranded in Denver," the younger man explained. "We were lucky we weren't stranded until spring. Thankfully, the railroad was able to get an alternate route open. Now, why aren't you back at the ranch?"

"I gotta telegram," Jelly replied. "My sister was real sick. Wasn't 'spected ta make it, but she fooled 'em all. Is doin' real good now, so I told 'er that I had ta get back." He gave the clerk a dirty look. "I was tryin' ta' tell him that I needed a ticket, but he says there ain't no seats left."

"I'll handle it," Scott assured him. He turned to the clerk. "This man needs to get a ticket on the train heading south for California."

"Him and everyone else who was stranded by that ice storm. I'm sorry, sir." The clerk shook his head. "As I have tried to explain, the train is fully booked. There is not a seat available."

"My family and I are in one of the hotel cars," the blond explained. "Can he join us?"

The clerk shrugged. "Don't see why not. Of course, there will be an added charge for his ticket."

"That is not a problem." Scott reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small roll of bills. He paid the clerk and walked over to the ranch handy man. "You're all set, Jelly"

"Thanks, Scott. Murdoch's gonna kill me," Jelly complained. "He asked me ta' keep a good eye on Johnny, an' I went an' left 'em."

"It will be okay. Your sister was ill and you needed to be with her. Murdoch will understand," the young rancher assured him. "How was Johnny doing when you left?" he asked cautiously.

"Jus' the same as you," Jelly grumbled. "Never listens to nuttin' I say. You young un's think ya knows everythin'."

Scott grinned as Jelly continued to rattle on about how inconsiderate he and Johnny were. Once the older man had had is say, Scott looked around, frowning. "Where are your bags?"

"They're still over at the hotel," Jelly replied.

"I need to send a telegram to Johnny to let him know that were finally on our way home," Scott explained. "Go get your luggage and meet me back here. We don't have a lot of time, so hurry."

This was a scheduled stop but it was also a very short one. With that in mind, Scott kept up a brisk pace as he headed for the telegraph office. Once there, he frowned. The note on the door said the office would be closed for an hour. He paced along the boardwalk, waiting as long as he could for someone to return. In the distance he heard the train's whistle blow, signaling that its departure was fast approaching. With one last look at the locked door, Scott turned and walked back to the depot to wait for Jelly. He was just about to head over to the hotel to see what was keeping the handy man, when he saw Jelly hurrying across the street, bags in hand.

"Hurry up, Jelly!" Scott called. "The train's leaving any minute." He grabbed the man's bags and they hurried through the station and out onto the platform. The blond stopped as they got to the landing of the train and turned, surprising the older man with a quick hug.

"Now, what in tarnation was that fer?" Jelly flustered.

"I really missed you," Scott said smiling at him. "Murdoch and Teresa are going to be excited to see you also."

They made their way through the passenger car to the hotel car Travis had so generously procured for them. With a grin, Scott opened the door and carried Jelly's bags inside. "Look what I found in the depot," he announced as he set his burden down on the floor by the chair.

"Jelly!" Teresa cried, running over to give him a hug.

"Jelly, what are you doing here?" Murdoch demanded. "You're supposed to be back at the ranch."

"His sister was sick," Scott explained quickly. "She's doing better now, but Jelly was having trouble getting a seat on the train, so he's going back home with us."

"How was Johnny when you left?" Murdoch asked.

"Near had that cold licked," Jelly assured him. "Said I should go on an' visit my sister, an' that he'd be jes fine."

"I'm sure he did," Murdoch replied, unconvinced

Scott noticed the added look of worry on his father's face. They had both been concerned about how Johnny was doing, but had consoled themselves with the assurance that Jelly would make help out and make sure that Johnny took good care of himself. The blond shook his head and smiled. Cipriano and Maria would make sure Johnny was well taken care of, maybe even better than Jelly would have done.

"Johnny didn't sell the ranch out from underneath us, did he?" Scott joked in an attempt to lighten the mood.

"Course not, Scott!" Jelly retorted. "Ya' don't have no faith in that boy do ya. Why I..."

"Jelly!" Scott raised his hand as the grizzled old man started giving him a lecture. "Jelly! I was joking."

"Oh," the older man stammered. "Whal, I knew that."  

"Sure you did, Jelly." Scott nodded, trying to keep from laughing.

Jelly began filling them in about the ranch and what had been going on before he had left to come to Oregon. After a while though, the yawns were coming out faster than the words. "When was the last time you slept, Jelly?" Scott asked.

"Why, I got lots of nappin' in on the way here," The grizzled old man replied. "Have ta say I sure didn't get much shut-eye at my sister's place, though. Was real touch an' go there, but she's a Hoskins." Jelly's chest puffed out. "We're tougher'n nails."

"I'm glad to hear your sister is doing so well," Murdoch said with a reassuring nod.

"As am I, but you look pretty tired," Scott commented. "Maybe you should stretch out on my bed for a bit. It's going to be a long ride home. You might as well get some rest."

"Ain't no call fer me ta take yer bed, Scott." Jelly protested, looking around. "I kin sleep in that there chair over by the winder."

"I'm pretty much slept out," the blond assured him, holding up the paper in his hand. "I was looking for a paper when I ran into you."

"Well, if'n yer sure," the older man hedged. "I reckon I am a mite tired."

"Go ahead," Scott encouraged him. They watched as Jelly lay down and none were surprised when he fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

"We're going to be a bed short," Scott informed the other two. "I'll push the chairs together and sleep by the window."

"I can-" Murdoch started to protest.

"You can sleep in the bed you have. Otherwise, your back will be in knots for weeks," Scott reminded him. "The last thing you need is to be sleeping on a chair." He looked out the window as he felt the train start to pull out of the station. "To be honest, I haven't been able to sleep much anyway."

"Don't worry, Son. We'll be home before you know it," Murdoch assured him.

"It can't be soon enough for me," Scott sighed. He picked up the newspaper and sat down by the window.  "By the way, I couldn't sent the telegram. The office was closed. The note said someone would be back in an hour, but there was no way to know when the note was posted. I waited as long as I could without missing the train."

"Great," Murdoch grumbled. "I was hoping Johnny would be able to meet us in Cross Creek."


Murdoch put his book away as dusk descended in the sky. Teresa was laying on her side, sound asleep, Jelly was lying on his back, snoring so loud it was a wonder anyone was getting any rest.  His son was sleeping, too; the newspaper the porter had provided was laying across his chest. The gray-haired man got up and retrieved the paper, folded it up and put it on the small table. He grabbed the spare blanket the attendant had brought them earlier and covered his son.

Jelly and Scott had argued for quite a while over who was going to sleep in the chair until finally Murdoch had interrupted and informed the ranch handy man that he would be sleeping on the bed. Jelly had grumbled a bit but the rancher could tell it meant a lot to the older man that Scott would show him this courtesy. 

It was something that he would be forever grateful for, that Scott was compassionate and need to help those less fortunate than he was. There were folks from town who thought Scott was a trusting fool, even Jelly had called him that a time or two but they all knew that would never change. His oldest son could not help himself when it came to someone in trouble he just had to help them, even at times putting his own life at risk 

He watched as Scott mumbled in his sleep, moving once more to try to get more comfortable. Murdoch thought of waking him up and insisting that he take the bed for a while but he knew his fair-haired son would just tell him he was fine and insist on staying where he was.

Laying down on his own bed, Murdoch pulled up the covers. His thoughts turning to the ranch and the son he had left behind just a few weeks before. While he hated knowing that Jelly had not been there, even for the moral support of someone to argue with, he was not surprised that Johnny had insisted that Jelly go to his sister.

For the life his son had lived, the compassion he could feel for people never ceased to surprise Murdoch. His dark-haired son had spent his life moving from town to town and Murdoch suspected that most of those moves had not been voluntary. Johnny had said little about his childhood, but Murdoch suspected that Maria had not been a good mother to him. There were too many little hints that Johnny had inadvertently revealed for him to thing otherwise.

That's what made it even more amazing. If there was a problem with one of the ranches employees or their family, Johnny was the one who would know about it and do whatever he could to help. It was just a month before they left on this trip that he had come to his father and told him that, Nathan, one of the ranch hands mother had passed away. It seemed the young ranch hand was new to the job and afraid if he asked for the time to go home for her funeral he would be fired. Johnny had informed his father that he had given the young Mexican the time off, with the promise of a job when he returned. Scott had stood by his side, as if they had expected their father to object.

Murdoch smiled as he thought of both of his sons. They were like puzzle pieces, each one of them had their own shape but when you laid them side-by-side they fit together perfectly. A father could not ask for better children. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, a feeling of happiness rushed through him as he thought of this first Christmas with his sons and how miracles do sometimes come true.


Lancer -


Johnny woke with a start. Sitting up, he looked around, trying to gather his thoughts that had, only moments ago, been lying dormant in the darkness of his sleep. Something had caused him to wake, but what had it been? Twisting around, he slipped on his boots and headed for the front door. His hand was almost on the handle, when the door swung open.

"Juanito!" Cipriano exclaimed in surprise.

"Sorry, Cip. Didn't mean to scare you," Johnny sighed, his own heart beating a little faster from the unexpected arrival. His gaze moved downward to the rifle held in the segundo's right hand, and his heart sank. A gunshot would have woken him for sure. "Caledonia?"

The old vaquero gave him a big smile. "He is fine, Juanito. A bit tired, but that is to be expected. The colic began leaving him not long after you retired. I did not want to disturb your sleep." A touch of reproach accompanied those last words.

That his father's horse was okay was all Johnny needed to hear, but he also knew that he should have been out in the barn, not hearing the news from Cipriano. With a sigh of relief, he turned away. "Lo siento, Amigo," he said softly. "I shouldn't have left that with you."

A large hand came to rest on Johnny's shoulder. "Do not be sorry, Juanito. After all that has happened...you have done nothing wrong."

Although Johnny did not agree, he nodded and turned away. "You eat breakfast yet?" he asked as he headed for the kitchen and that first steaming cup of coffee that always seemed to get him moving more efficiently. "I hope Maria has the coffee on."

"Sí, I have eaten." The older man followed Johnny, pausing long enough to set his rifle down safely in the corner behind the table. "But I will join you for some coffee."

The two men entered the kitchen, but wished they hadn't. Maria turned on them and began spouting angrily, waving the wooden spoon in her hand like a sword, and cursing both them and the mess on the floor, before heading for the door, saying something about fetching a shovel.

"I guess I did not fix that pot handle soon enough?" Cipriano sighed.

Johnny looked down at the large pot lying on the floor. The wooden handle on the left side was gone and the stew that was to be tonight's dinner was all over the floor. Using caution as the tiled floor could be very slippery when wet, Johnny lifted the pot out of the mess and set it down on the table.

"Maybe we should skip coffee," he suggested.

"You are the boss," Cipriano agreed.

The two men turned around and headed for the barn. "You tell Frank and Walt to take some extra men out to the herd."

"Sí. They have the herd in the farthest part of the south pasture. The blasting should not bother them."

Johnny snorted. "A lot things shouldn't bother 'em, but they get bothered anyway."

*** *** *** ***


Johnny stiffened. Mac was next to him with Jeff, and Cipriano was on his right, but even their presence could not detract from the foreboding feelings that jumped out to grab him after every blast.


That was the eighth and final blast. "Wait here," Mac ordered.

Johnny moved to follow, but was stopped a firm hand on his arm.

"Mac said to wait here," Jeff stated firmly. "When he's blasting, he's the boss. No exceptions." The engineer's tone softened. "You said you didn't want anyone hurt on this job and we said there wouldn't be. That includes you."

Part of him wanted to object, to remind the man that this was Lancer land, but Johnny held his tongue. He was paying these men to do a job and to do it safely. He would have to abide by the rules, too.

"Now that the rocks are no longer a wall, what will be done with them?" Cipriano inquired.

Jeff let go of Johnny's arm, then answered the segundo's question. "There really shouldn't be too much debris to remove," he explained. "The blasts Mac used were set specifically so as to not just take the wall down, but to pulverize the rock at the same time. It will be almost like a bed of gravel has been laid along the pass."

"That'll slow the cattle down even more when it comes time to move 'em," Johnny mused.


"All clear!" Mac's voice could be heard from deep inside the pass.

The threesome eagerly moved forward. Johnny surveyed the area with a knowing eye. The dust was still stirred, making it seem like a fog had descended on that one parcel of Lancer. He understood more now why Mac wanted to get the blasting done so soon, instead of waiting until March when Jeff said the materials and weather would allow them to start erecting the structure. Once the dust settled, the rocky floor would be much smoother and there would be less chance of loose rocks causing problems for man and beast.

"Well?" Mac asked, a smile of satisfaction on his face.

"Looks good," Johnny grinned.

"Sí," Cipriano agreed. "Is very good."

Johnny looked down the pass, and saw the trees from the mesa on the other side. He was pleased, not only with the pass, but that the blasting was over. Last night had been hard; his worries over things that could go wrong making it impossible to sleep too soundly. The knot in his stomach was lifting once again. The blasting was done. All that was left was to get the bridge built and then he could put this uneasy time behind him. 

Friday, December 23, 1870:

Denver -

They had just sat down to breakfast when Murdoch looked at Jelly. "How was Johnny when you left? Really."

"I told ya he was feelin' better," the handy man replied, taking a bite of his eggs. "Don't know about now, though. The mornin' I left fer' Oregon there was a real bad train wreck. Heard tell on the way here that they got lots of help from local ranchers, including some from Lancer."

"Johnny would be the first one to offer," Scott said soberly. "I wonder if that wreck had more to do with derailing the train schedules than that ice storm."

"A man come this way yesterday. He was there 'an said it was the most gruesome sight he ever saw," Jelly replied, faltering over his next words. "Said they even found kids. Most of 'em weren't alive, neither."

"Damn!" Murdoch swore loudly. "I hate to think of Johnny facing something like that alone!"

"So, do I," Scott said quietly. "That kind of thing tends to hit a man pretty hard."

"But you're sure Johnny was over his cold when you left, Jelly?" Murdoch asked about his son's health, once again needing reassurance.'

"Like I done told ya, he was doin' perty good," Jelly grumbled. "Ornery as all get out though, an all 'cause I was tryin' ta' get em ta take it easy, like ya told me to."

"What did you do?" Scott groaned. "Lock him in his room?"

"I'd never do such a dern fool thing!" the grizzled old man exclaimed. "I had one of the men take Barranca to grazin' land 'fore Johnny got up. An I sort a changed 'round the work crews, a little, so's he could stay near the house an' take it easy."

"And you're still alive?" Scott grinned. He could see his father was trying not to explode. "I'm surprised Johnny didn't shoot you on the spot."

"Ain't like he didn't' threaten ta do jes that," Jelly admitted.

Murdoch got up from the table and moved over to one of the chairs by the window. If he was worried about Johnny before, it had doubled in the past few minutes. His son was back at the ranch, virtually alone except for the ranch hands. He had faced a tragedy that was too hard to even begin to imagine. He hated to think of any child being killed in the accident, but he hated more knowing that Johnny more than likely had found at least one of them.

His youngest had a soft spot when it came to kids; he was always trying to do whatever he could to make their lives happy. Something like this was sure to effect him very deeply. Murdoch could only hope they would get home soon so that he and Scott be there if Johnny needed them. Even if he wouldn't admit to, it would help just having the responsibility of the ranch off his shoulders.

In addition to the concerns over what Johnny had seen and maybe even had to do at that wreck site, Murdoch was also worried that Jelly had gone too far in his efforts to follow orders that Murdoch had not intended to be taken so literally. Johnny was bound to think that this was further proof that his own father did not trust him enough to run the ranch.

Murdoch knew he would have to answer for that, and he would have to find a way to explain to his son that he was just worried about Johnny's health. The day they had left Lancer, Johnny's cough had sounded horrible, no matter how hard he tried to downplay it. Even Sam had stressed that if Johnny did not take care of himself he could end up with pneumonia. Unfortunately, Johnny would most likely only see that his father had no faith in him.


Scott and Murdoch stepped out of the telegraph office, the younger man sighed in relief that they finally managed to get a wire off to Johnny that they were on their way home. He hoped that his younger brother would feel some relief knowing his family was doing everything within their power to make it home for Christmas.

"If we head to the restaurant right now," Murdoch suggested. "We'll have time to eat lunch with Teresa and Jelly before the train pulls out later tonight."

"That sounds good to me. I've had enough of that train for one day," Scott agreed. The two men headed to the restaurant, arriving at the same time as Jelly and Teresa.

"So," Jelly asked as they finished ordering. "What'd ya'll find ta get into while ya' was stuck in Denver?"

"We stayed with an old friend of Murdoch's," Scott explained, a grin on his face. "The stories he told us!"

"Scott," Murdoch warned him.

"I'll tell you later." Scott winked at the handy man. "We went to some very nice parties and, oh yes, Teresa has a new beau."

"Ya met ya a feller," Jelly frowned. "Not one a them uppity city slickers, I hope."

"Murray is not uppity at all, Jelly. He is very nice." Teresa's face lit up as she spoke of the man she loved. "He's the son of Murdoch's friend, Travis, and they are coming out to the ranch this summer to visit. I know you'll like him when you meet him."

"We did manage to attend the cattlemen meetings," Murdoch stressed. "I bought some cattle, a new breed to mix with ours. They are shipping them in the spring."

"It's a good thing ta' branch out," Jelly agreed, nodding. "Did ya' get yer shoppin' done?"

"Yes, we did," Teresa smiled. "You should see the beautiful stallion Scott got for Johnny."

"What'd ya get him one them fer?" the older man grumbled. "Barranca ain't gonna be none to happy 'bout sharin' 'em."

"Jelly," Murdoch smiled at his friends. "My sons are thinking of going into the horse breeding business. They're going to need a good stud for the mares they purchased, and Scott found a very nice animal."

"Johnny ain't never gonna believe this," Jelly shook his head, scratching his beard. "He's gonna be convinced ya went and got conked on the head."

"I did," Murdoch replied quietly, smiling at Scott, who grinned in return. "And I'm glad it happened.


"Murdoch," Scott called to his father as he and Jelly crossed the street. "You're not going to believe this," he said with a frown.

"What now?" Murdoch asked uneasily.  

"There's something wrong with the train engine. It is going to have to be repaired before we can leave," Scott said frustrated. "The conductor said it would be two days, at the earliest."

"Damn!" Murdoch swore. "We don't have two days. There has to be another way to get home by Christmas."

"There just might be a way," Scott ventured. "Jelly and I were talking. If we rent a wagon and horses, we could leave early in the morning. By cutting cross country, we should be home late tomorrow evening."

"Then let's do it," Murdoch declared. "We'll fit what we can on the wagon. The rest can be shipped to Cross Creek and you and Johnny can go pick it up later."

"Okay," Scott nodded. "Jelly and I will go rent a wagon. You and Teresa can get us rooms at the hotel."

"We'll meet up with you there," Murdoch agreed.

"It might be a little while," Scott warned him. "I'm going to have to get Johnny's horse settled at the livery stable, too."

Scott and Jelly headed towards the livery. A half hour later both men were relieved that they were able to rent the wagon and horses without difficulty. As he bedded down the stallion, Scott began to consider that there was some force trying to keep his family from being together for the holiday seasons.

"I promised him I'd be home today," Scott said quietly as he finished tending to the horse before heading back to the hotel. "It's his birthday. I promised him that this year he would not be alone. That he had a family now, and would never have to spend another birthday alone."

"Reckon he felt jus' as bad on yers too, Scott." Jelly said softly in an effort to ease the younger man's burden.

"Maybe, but I wasn't alone, Jelly. I had Teresa and Murdoch," Scott pointed out sadly. "I gave Johnny my word he'd never be alone on this day again, and I broke it."

"Ain't like ya could help it," Jelly disagreed. "Johnny'll understand. Ya know he will."

"Yeah, I know. It's just that he shouldn't have to. Somehow, I'm going to find a way to make it up to him." Scott put the brush down and the two men headed toward the hotel.


Johnny stood under the arch as Scott rode up on his horse. The blond dismounted, aware of the cold look in his brother's eyes, but confused as to why it was there.

"You wasn't here." Johnny accused him.

"I tried," Scott protested. "The train couldn't get through the mountains."

"It's too late," Johnny said coldly. "You can't unbreak a promise."

A mist rose up around them. Scott reached out for Johnny, but his fingers found only empty air behind the veil of dense fog. He began moving in the direction Johnny had to have gone, but he still could not find him. In a panic he began calling for his brother, but got no answer. His steps came faster until he was almost at a run, when he suddenly tripped and fell down.

Sitting up, he looked around for whatever it was that had caused his fall, hoping that it had not been his brother. As the thick mist thinned, he saw that he was in a cemetery; it had been a tombstone that he had tripped over. He tried to read the name, but the mist was too think around the stone marker. Using his fingers he felt the cold surface, finding the carved letters and tracing them until he had the name on the marker...Lancer!

Scott sat up in bed, breathing heavily as he realized he was still in the hotel, still a day way from home. A wave of fear washed over him again. This was his third nightmare in as many nights, and all of them centered around Johnny. The urgency he felt to get home increased. Scott stared up at the dark ceiling, not knowing what was wrong, but knowing with all his heart that something was not right back at Lancer.  


Lancer -

"Come on, Johnny," Frank urged. "We're only gonna play a few hands before turning in. Won't be up late, but, hey, ain't every day a man gets to snooker his boss."

"Sorry, Frank. Got some things that gotta get done before next week." A slight grin creased Johnny's lips. "Besides, I wouldn't want everyone thinking I take advantage of my men. Payin' 'em, then stealing it back over a deck of cards."

Frank laughed, but his expression was sadly frustrated. If he only knew how close he was to swaying Johnny into joining them for the impromptu poker game, he never would have given up so easily. "Maybe next Saturday night? You ain't been to town for some fun in a few weeks," he pressed. "Cain't work all the time."

"We'll see, Frank," Johnny nodded.

The Lancer hand headed for the bunkhouse, while Johnny led Barranca into the barn. They were both greeted by an anxious whiney from Charlemagne. Johnny paused long enough to give the chestnut a pat on the neck. Warm lips nibbled at his outstretched hand, before a golden nose pushed into the mix. The two geldings gave a few playful nips, but there was not harm intended. They were buddies, like the men who rode them.

Johnny took an extra long time bedding down the palomino. A hearty measure of oats were dumped into the feed bin, the hay rack was stuffed full, hooves were picked clean, and both mane and tail were combed until they were free of all tangles. The golden coat was brushed and curried until it nearly glowed in the pale lamplight.

After he was done with his faithful compadre, Johnny moved over to Charlemagne and gave him some much-deserved attention. Jeff and Mac had headed back to San Francisco on the afternoon stage, so Charlemagne had not been ridden at all that day. Still, Johnny brushed out satiny coat until it shined like a copper penny. When he turned to leave, gentle teeth grabbed at his jacket sleeve. Johnny gave the animal a few more minutes of attention. "I miss him, too," he said softly as he rubbed Charlemagne's ears.

With his emotions still churning, Johnny headed for Caledonia's stall. The burly gelding reached his head out to Johnny, closing his eyes in contentment as nimble fingers rubbed his forehead and ears. Johnny studied the older horse. He wasn't sure exactly how old Caledonia was, but he was not a colt anymore. There was a bit of gray around his muzzle. The horse suited Murdoch, though, and that was all that mattered.

As he had with Charlemagne, he could feel Caledonia's confusion. Murdoch did not ride the gelding every day, but he at least saw him in the barn or paddock and gave him the treats he had snagged from the kitchen. Johnny had no such treat on him, and he had nothing to offer in the way of assurances. They missed Scott and Murdoch and there was nothing Johnny could do about that.

Teresa's mare, Sugar, tried to nip him as he went by. This was nothing unusual, and Johnny deftly missed the bared teeth. For whatever reason the mare had taken a dislike to him, but at least now she was content only to try to bite if he got too close. At first she would actually lunge at him, teeth bared and ears pinned back.

After Johnny received a nasty kick, Murdoch had talked of getting rid of the cranky mare. Teresa had been heartbroken, but she had agreed that the mare's behavior was unacceptable. Johnny made a special effort to make friends with Sugar, and although she was better, she was not a horse he would consider keeping around if it wasn't for the fact that she had been Teresa's favorite riding horse for nearly five years, and a gift from her father.

A truce was established and Murdoch had agreed that Sugar could stay, providing she continued to behave. For the life of him, Johnny had no clue as to why the mare hated him so much. He had never ridden her, or even seen her until weeks after he arrived at Lancer, and Sam had given him the go ahead to be up and about, but not to work. She had taken a chunk out of his arm that day, and for no reason. Even Teresa, who had been with him at the time, could not understand what had prompted the aggressive behavior.

Scott had simply told him that he shouldn't count on being able to charm all the 'ladies'. Johnny smiled at the memory, then carefully slipped up to Sugar and gave her neck a stroke, being very watchful of her teeth. She would allow this minor contact, for whatever reason, but that was all. He moved away and she let him go without notice. This had become their nightly ritual. She would allow him one pat and maybe a stroke down the neck, and he left her alone the rest of the time.

Grabbing a couple of buckets, he went outside to the water trough. He pumped them full and put one in each stall. It took a couple of trips to get all of the horses supplied with fresh water for the night. When that was done, he secured the barn door, pulled his coat closed against the night chill, and made his way towards the dark house.

Maria had gone home by now, and that was what Johnny wanted. He had all but threatened not to come home if she planned a big fuss for his birthday. He wasn't in the mood to celebrate. There was nothing to celebrate as far as he was concerned, and the rest of them were just going to accept that fact.

Entering through the kitchen door, he slipped out of his coat and put it and his hat on the pegs by the door. The room was still warm from the cook fire that had prepared whatever it was that was smelling so good. Last night he had fixed the handle on the pot that had broken the previous morning, and for that he had been promised something very special. He had not wanted her to make a fuss, but Johnny knew she would anyway. After dashing her hopes for a huge birthday dinner, he hadn't wanted to get too obstinate.

From the oven he pulled a plate of warming roast beef, accompanied by the usual fair of mashed potatoes smothered in Maria's special gravy, green beans, and...he smiled. Empadas. The first time he had eaten the tasty pastries had been when he was a very small boy. One of the families his mother had done the laundry for had made them for Johnny's sixth or seventh birthday. They had been filled with pumpkin, and had melted in his mouth as he ate them. Later he would learn they could be filled with any kind of fruit.

The smile faded, as did the memory of being with someone who cared. Johnny stared down at the delectable treats as if they were to blame for his churning emotions that had been waging a war inside his chest all day. The emotions were fueled by the voices in his mind that kept arguing of blame and circumstance. One minute he was feeling like he might make it after all, and the next, he was being crushed by the guilt of daring to feel that way.

Nothing was the same anymore, and the more comfortable he felt with the way things were, the deeper the anger raged inside him. He did not want this. He did not want any of this. Not this way. Not now. Not all alone.


"Damn it! You promised!"

The plate lay broken on the floor behind the table. The food slid down the wall to add to the mess that lay directly across from where his brother would be sitting, if he were there.     

Saturday, December 24, 1870:

Denver -

Scott handed the last bag to Jelly, impatiently looking down the street for his father and Teresa. They had gone to get something for them to eat on the road. He and Jelly had figured out last night that if they left first thing in the morning and made only minimal stops along the way, they could reach Lancer by nightfall. Scott intended to get home tonight if he had to walk every step of the way.

As he paced around the wagon, he thought of the plans he and Johnny had made for this day; plans that had been ruined along with so many other things. They had intended to spend the day in Green River, and then they were going to attend mass together. Johnny had been surprised when Scott made the suggestion, but Scott had persisted until Johnny agreed. Scott felt that if Johnny was going willing to participate in the customs Scott had always associated with Christmas, than Scott should be willing to participate in those things that were traditional for Johnny, too.

Swatting a horse fly off the rump of one of the horses, he thought about fate, and how it seemed determined not to deal them one single good hand. First, he and Johnny had not been able to spend their birthdays together, something they had both looked forward to for months, and now it looked as if Christmas could be doomed, too.

"Jelly, why don't you go find Murdoch," Scott suggested impatiently. "Tell him we need to get going if we're going to get home before dark."

"Okay, Scott." Jelly hopped off the wagon and headed up the street in the direction of the small market where Murdoch and Teresa had gone.

"I'll get Johnny's horse," Scott called after him. "Once we get going we're not stopping unless we have to."

The stallion lead rope was securely tied to the back of the wagon, and Scott checked the harnesses on the team one more time, just to satisfy his mind that all was in order. He was not going to take anything for granted; one mistake could leave them strand them on the side of the road. Scott glanced up, frowning as his father returned alone.

"Where are Teresa and Jelly?" the blond demanded.

"They're coming," Murdoch replied, his eyebrows rising. "Teresa is getting our food together, Jelly's helping her."

"We need to get going," Scott complained in frustration. "At this rate, we're going to be lucky to make it home by spring."

"Calm down, Scott." Murdoch was being remarkably patient. "They're coming across the street right now,"

"It's about time," Scott grumbled. He quickly climbed onto the front of the wagon and picked up the reins.

"Jelly," Murdoch called as he climbed into the wagon. "Hand me those packages and I'll put them away. You and Teresa can ride back here first. I'll ride with Scott."

The purchase were stowed and everyone settled. Scott sighed in relief as they headed out of town.


"We're making great time," Murdoch commented. He had taken the reins from Scott a short time before. "I'm really looking forward to getting home."

"Me too," Scott replied. He paused for a minute and continued. "I'm afraid I was a bit grouchy this morning. I'm sorry."

"It's okay son," Murdoch replied. "I know how important it is for you to spend this holiday with Johnny."

"I feel like I broke my word," Scott explained. "I promised him he'd never be alone on his birthday again." He faltered for a moment. "And now Christmas is upon us and once again he's got to be thinking I broke my word."

"Johnny will understand," Murdoch assured him.

"I know." Scott sighed. He did know that Johnny would understand, he just hated that his brother would have to. "He's spent his whole life dealing with disappointment. That's all he's ever had; people who let him down when he needed them most. I didn't want to ever be one of those people, and yet, here I am. I made Johnny a promise I didn't keep."

"Couldn't keep," Murdoch corrected. "This was an act of God, Son. You didn't plan for the ice storm to take down the telegraph lines or the trains to stop running. If you had known any of those things would happen, then you wouldn't have left. None of us would have. Sometimes it's the spirit of the promise that's more important than the actually fulfillment of it."

"I should have stayed home," Scott insisted. "I couldn't make up my mind to go or stay home." He faltered for a moment, unsure if he wanted to continue. "I was selfish. I really wanted to go to Denver."

"You feel guilty because you did what you wanted," his father replied.

"Yes!" Scott snapped. "If I had stayed home, Johnny wouldn't be alone right now."

"Scott, Johnny would never want to be the reason you denied yourself something you really wanted. He understands that sometimes you miss being in the big city, just like you understand that sometimes he misses being footloose and worry free," Murdoch disagreed. "The truth is that Johnny was looking forward to having some time to himself, and you know that as well as I do."

That was the truth, so there was nothing Scott could say. It did not make him feel any better, though. It did not take away the worries that had been building for days.

Last night after everyone had gone to bed, he had gone for a walk because he could not sleep. He had gone to the saloon for a drink and he heard some men talking about the devastation the railroad accident had caused. Scott had gone over to their table and recognized one of them as a former hand who had worked for them until just before Thanksgiving. The man's name was Willie. After introducing himself, Scott asked Willie if he had run into Johnny at the wreak site. Willie had said had seen Johnny, telling Scott what he already knew; that Johnny had been in the thick of it all helping wherever he was needed.

After thanking Willie for the information and buying a round of beers for the table, Scott had returned to the hotel, but sleep never came. He knew his brother almost better than himself, and Scott knew that Johnny would be going through hell over what he had seen. Without Scott there to talk to, Johnny would be bottling it all up inside.

The blond's impatience to get home increased ten fold. All these delays were finally getting to him. Even though they were no on the last leg of the journey, it still seemed wrong to take it for granted that they would actually make it home today. Something always seemed to go wrong. Now that the train was no longer an issue, there was always a wagon wheel that could break or a horse that could come up lame, or a rockslide or a...he shook his head, pushing away those thoughts. He couldn't think that way. He had to believe they would make it all the way home today.

"You're tired, Scott. Why don't you climb in back and try to take a nap?" Murdoch suggested. "Jelly can come up and keep me company, and I'm going to need you to drive the team later."

"Okay," Scott agreed reluctantly. He doubted he would be able to get any sleep but at least he would try.

Scott sat up with a jerk, looking around for a moment before he realized where he was. It had been the same nightmare; only this time he had found his brother's body at the train site. He could not seem to shake the feeling that these dreams were telling him something, and that something was that he needed to get home as soon as possible. He looked over at Teresa who smiled back in return. Although she too looked tired, her dark brown eyes sparkled with excitement. She was just as anxious as he was over the prospect of finally being home again.

"I don't know about you," Scott admitted. "But I need to get out of this wagon and stretch my legs for a minute." He knew as grouchy as he had been this morning there was no way she would ask him if they could stop, even though she had to be feeling the effects of the cramped position in the back of the wagon.

"I could stand to get down too," Teresa confessed eagerly.

With his suspicions confirmed, Scott called to his father. "Murdoch, why don't we take a break for a few minutes? Then I'll take over driving for a while." His father nodded in agreement, pulled up on the reins to stop the horses.

"There's a river over there," Scott pointed. "I'm going to take the stallion to get a drink. And since we're stopped, we might as well have something to eat."

"Good idea, Son. We could all use a break."


A half hour later, the group once more got on the wagon and headed down the road. Teresa sat next to Scott on the bench seat, while Murdoch and Jelly took their turn at resting.

"How far from home do you think we are?" Teresa asked, her eyes lighting up.

"A few hours," Scott answered, sighing in relief. "I'm beginning to believe we just might make it."

"What do you miss the most about Lancer?" the young woman answered.

"Johnny," Scott replied without blinking.

"No, silly!" she exclaimed. "I meant about the ranch."

"I'd still say Johnny," Scott said quietly. "The ranch isn't a place to me, Teresa; it's the people."

"I don't understand," Teresa frowned. "I thought you loved the land as much as Murdoch and Johnny do."

"The land is where my family is," Scott explained, glancing in the back of the wagon to make sure the other two men could not hear the conversation. "When I first came here, Murdoch told Johnny and me that he loved that ground more than anything God created. Though I do admit I love being at Lancer, it isn't the land that holds me there; it's my family."

"Scott," Teresa returned. "You don't think Murdoch really meant that, do you?"

"At the time he said it I did," Scott replied honestly. "And I honestly think he did, too. Since then, though, I've come to believe that it's not the land that is what is most important to him."

"What changed your mind?" Teresa asked.
"I got to know him," Scott admitted. "I've come to realize when he lost me, and then Johnny, that he was afraid to love anyone else, to put his heart into people, so he turned to the land. Murdoch would never have to worry about it leaving him. The ranch became like a child to him."

"You're very perceptive, Scott," Teresa said softly. "Not very many people would pick up on that."

"Do you think he got the chance to buy any Christmas presents," Scott said, changing the subject back to the one that had been occupying his thoughts for so long.

"I don't know," Teresa frowned. "I know he has a birthday present for you, though. He said he hid it in the one place you would never look."

"He told me the same thing," Scott admitted, sounding somewhat annoyed. "I tore the whole ranch apart, but I wasn't able to find it."

"Scott, you're worse than a child," Teresa laughed.

"I admit it," Scott grinned. "I love looking for the hiding place as much as I enjoy receiving the surprise."

"You know what," Teresa confessed. "So do I!"

They laughed and then fell into a comfortable silence. Scott silently prayed that there would be no unseen problems to stop them from getting to the ranch in the next few hours.


"Where are we, Scott?" Murdoch murmured, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

"I was just going to wake you up," Scott replied unable to keep the excitement from his voice. "We're getting close to the crest of the hill. We'll be able to see the hacienda in a few minutes."

Murdoch climbed onto the buckboard beside his son. Teresa had climbed in the back a couple hours ago at Scott's urging. He was afraid she was going to fall off the wagon because she kept falling asleep.

"You should have woken me up, I would have taken over."

"I'm too excited to sleep, sir." Scott replied. "We're really going to make it home, Sir."

"It does seem almost to good to be true," Murdoch reflected. He turned his head, calling out. "Teresa! Jelly! Wake up, we're almost there!"

The four occupants of the wagon smiled as they saw the crest of the hill just ahead of them. As soon as the reached the top, Scott pulled up on the reins, and every eye turned to look down at the ranch below.

Murdoch frowned. "Something isn't right. It's too dark."

"Maybe Johnny's at the saloon," Jelly suggested. "Or he went to church already."

"There should be a light on somewhere," Scott reminded him. "The ranch is never totally dark."

"I don't like this, Scott" Murdoch said uneasily.

"Me either," Scott urged the team forward at a quick pace. That familiar pull of dread returned. There was something wrong at the ranch and whatever it was he knew with absolute certainty that it centered around his brother.  


Lancer -

Cipriano, rifle in hand, stared at the intruders, his eyes opened wide and his mouth hung open. "Madre del Dios!" his words came out as a breathless whisper, even as his shifted the rifle to his left hand, quickly making the sign of a cross over his heart with his right.

A shrill scream suddenly filled the room, and was punctuated by the crash of the water pitcher as it shattered upon impact with the hard floor. "¡Excepto nosotros de este mal!" the terrified woman prayed in Mexican for them to be saved from the evil that had descended upon the house. In the dim light of the one lamp, her jerky hand could be seen signing the cross over her heart, once, then again, and even again as she moved closer to Cipriano, seeking refuge behind the bulk of her husband's burly frame. Her eyes were wild with fright.

"Cipriano. Maria. What is wrong with you two?" Murdoch demanded.

"Murdoch, is that really you?"

Everyone turned towards the unexpected voice that came from the main doorway. Sam Jenkins stepped into the great room, his stunned expression mirroring that of Cipriano and Maria.

"¡Señor Sam! ¡Haga que salen!" Maria beseeched the doctor to make them go away.

"Sam, what are you doing here? Is Johnny hurt? And why is the house so dark?"

"Sure sounds like Murdoch," Sam said to Cipriano and Maria.

"It sounds like me because it is me!" Murdoch's tone grew in intensity. "Now what is going on around here?"

"Sam, where is Johnny?" Scott asked not nearly as loud as his father, but his voice was tight with the anxiety twisting at his insides. He was standing slightly behind Murdoch, with his arm wrapped protectively around Teresa's shoulders. She was trembling beneath his hands.

"Madre del Dios!" Maria screamed again.

"Why is Maria scared of us?" Teresa said through her tears.

Sam approached the confused family. With a raised eyebrow he reached out and touched Murdoch's arm, tentatively at first, and then with conviction. "I'll be damned, but it is you!"

"Are you certain, Señor Sam?" Cipriano asked. "How can this be?"

The smile on Sam's face could have lit the room. "I'm sure, Cipriano. I'm not sure how, but it's them, all right." In an unusual display for a very unusual happenstance, Sam Jenkins gave Murdoch a fierce hug. "I'll be damned," he said again. Releasing a stunned Murdoch, the family doctor turned to Scott. "Boy, you're a sight for sore eyes. You, too, Teresa. All of you are!"

"Madre del Dios!" Maria cried out a again, only this time her outburst was accompanied by a charge across the room. She babbled incoherently of God and angels and miracles as she hugged and kissed each of the family. "Es um milagro!" She proclaimed the miracle loudly, and often.

"Sam, what's going on?" Murdoch repeated, while Maria tried to smoother Scott and Teresa with motherly kisses. "It is nice that we managed to get back in time for Christmas, but that is hardly a miracle?"

The doctor's smile faltered. "Maria, maybe you put on some coffee while Cipriano and I try to figure out exactly what has happened."

"Sí, Señor Sam. I will do that right away." Despite her proclamation, on the way to the kitchen she could not resist giving Murdoch other hug. "Es um milagro," she cried before hurrying off towards the kitchen.

Even more subdued, Sam gestured towards the sofa while Cipriano lit the lamp on the table. "Maybe you three should sit down. This might be a bit of a shock for all of you."

"Where'd ya go, Scott?" Jelly's gruff voiced groused from outside. "Ya don't 'spect me ta unload all this stuff by myself, do ya?"

"Jelly's with you, too?" Sam asked in surprise. "I thought he went to Oregon to visit his sister."

"Scott, go get Jelly," Murdoch said to his son.

"Yes, Sir. I'll put the stallion in the corral, and then we'll both be right in." Scott hurried towards the French doors. "In the meantime, you can fill Sam in on how we met up with Jelly."

Murdoch nodded, knowing what his son had left unsaid - that he wanted to be there for Sam's explanation of the strange greeting they had just received. "Sam, we got stuck in Denver by that ice storm that went down the Rockies," Murdoch began.

He quickly outlined how the railroad opened a northern spur that connected the Denver line to the more northern route that went up through Wyoming and into Montana. From there they headed west, through Idaho and into Oregon, which is where they unexpectedly met up with Jelly. "We sent a wire telling Johnny we would be home today." Murdoch turned to Cipriano. "Is that where he is? Going to meet us at Cross Creek?"

Cipriano could not meet Murdoch's eyes. "No, Patrón. Juanito did not receive any telegram. He would have told us."

"I've got the telegram," Sam informed them all. "Evan gave it to me this morning.

"Why you?" Murdoch demanded. "Why didn't he send it out to Johnny like he was supposed to?"

"Leave it, Jelly," Scott's voice could be heard from outside. A few seconds later, Scott and Jelly entered through the French doors.

"Someone gonna tell me what's the big ta do?" he huffed.

"Jelly, please sit down." Though issued as a request, Murdoch's tone would broker no argument.

Grumbling all the way, Jelly headed for the loveseat, but had to move the pile of clothes off onto the floor. "Why're Johnny's clothes piled up down here?" he grumbled.

"Because this is where he has been living," Cipriano said sadly.

"Of course he's been living here," Scott chimed in. "This is his home."

"You do not understand, Señor Scott," Cipriano corrected. "I meant your brother has been living here," a large hand waved around the room. "In this room. He has not been upstairs since-"

"Since what?" Scott demanded.

Sam and Cipriano shared a worried look, then Sam, his voice tight, answered Scott's question. "Since we buried you almost two weeks ago."

"Buried?" Scott felt the blood drain from his face. Father and son and daughter looked at each other, horrified by what they had just heard.

"Sam-" Murdoch began only to be cut off by the family friend.

"Murdoch, Johnny - hell, everyone in the whole state - thinks that you and Scott and Teresa were killed in the train that crashed and took out the rail line."

"Why would he? Why would any of you think something so dreadful?" Teresa asked.

"What in tarnation are ya saying, Doc?" Jelly added his confusion to the pot.

"There were several bodies found near the wreck," Sam answered, his voice heavy with regret. "Scott, your wallet was found on one of them, and so was that belt buckle that you gave to Murdoch last summer. Then there was the telegram Johnny got that said you were coming back early-"

"Damn!" Murdoch cursed. "The telegraph office in Denver swore that the telegram did not make it through, that the lines were already down before it was sent."

"Why didn't anyone think that the bodies that were found might belong to the people who robbed us?" Scott asked.

Sam and Cipriano shared another look, this one more confused than worried. "The telegram said nothing about a robbery, Patrón. Only that you and Señor Scott and Señorita Teresa would be returning early."

"Only the first part got through," Scott mused. "That's why there was no confirmation signal to let Denver know that it had been received. All Johnny knew was that we were coming back early, and the only early train from Denver ended up in a river with most of the occupants dead."

"That's why Evan gave me the telegram Scott sent yesterday, Murdoch," Sam said softly. "I told him I was coming out here to check on Johnny, and he told me about it. He was mad as hell, and so was I. We both thought that someone had sent it to be cruel."

The room fell silent, each person lost in the contemplation of the series of rational assumptions that had lead to such a tragic case of mistaken identity. "Where is Johnny?" Scott asked.

"I do not know," Cipriano sighed. "He has...this has not been an easy time for your hermano."

Scott shot to his feet. "He had to bury his entire family, Cipriano. I don't think that would be easy for anyone, much less someone who had just found that family after being denied them all his life because of his mother's lies!"

"Easy, Scott." Murdoch stood and placed a hand on Scott's arm. "We'll find him."

"Cipriano can ask the men if anyone has seen him today," Sam suggested quickly.

The segundo nodded and headed for the door.

"I'm going to find my brother," Scott said with determination, but his attempt to follow Cipriano's departure was thwarted by a firm hand grasping his arm.

"Scott, we can't just take off looking for him. We're liable to end up shot if we try." At Scott's dumbfounded look, Murdoch continued. "Everyone thinks we're dead, Son. Cipriano had a rifle on us. Do you think anyone else would react any differently to finding a ghost knocking at their door?"

"Listen to your father, Scott," Sam urged. "Let Cipriano find Johnny, then you can go to him."

"Ain't nobody believes I'm dead. I'll goin' help Cip, Scott," Jelly announced and hurried out the door.

Although he did not like it, not one bit, Scott could see the logic in the older men's argument. "I just don't understand why no one questioned that those bodies weren't ours," he said in frustration as he sat back down on the sofa next to Teresa, who was huddling against Murdoch, tears streaming down her face.

"I never saw the bodies, Scott. Might not have mattered if I had, either," Sam replied. "They weren't found until a week or so after the wreck. The marshal that brought them here said they were all in pretty bad shape, too. What with the personal belongings found on them and the telegram that all but said that you would be on that train, there was no reason for any of us to think it wasn't you. That and all the bodies were found together...the ones we thought were yours were with that family that Johnny knew from Mexico."

"What family?" Teresa asked, wiping the tears from her cheek with a shaky hand.

Sam shook his head. "All I know is the man's name was Pedro, and that there was a letter from Johnny found in his pocket."

"Pedro?" Scott repeated. He looked over at Murdoch. "But I thought he wasn't bringing his family to Lancer until later in the spring."

Murdoch nodded. "That's what Johnny told me, too."

"Cipriano said that Johnny received a letter, but not until after he bodies were found. It said things in Mexico were not going well. This Pedro and his family were in danger, so they decided to come sooner than planned. They had to sneak over the border somewhere in Texas, where the Mexican authorities would not be so likely to recognize him. That is why they were coming through Denver instead of up through California."

The lump in Scott's throat made it difficult to breath. When Johnny had first mentioned about Pedro coming to work at Lancer, he had told Scott of how the two men had fought together in the revolution that had nearly cost Johnny his life. Now they were being told that not only did Johnny believe his family had died, but that he had lost this dear friend, too. What kind of hell had his brother been through these past few weeks?

"El Patrón, I have found him," Cipriano announced in a soft voice. "He is up on the hill."

"Which hill?" Scott demanded. Once again on his feet, he was headed for the door, more determined than ever to get to his brother. This time it was Cipriano's strong hand that stopped him.

"He is at the cemetery. He has not been there since the day he...I have seen him at the end of the road, staring up that way, but he never goes. Not until tonight."

"Scott, you can't go charging up there," Sam warned. He looked at Murdoch and Teresa. "Johnny thinks you are all dead. With the frame of mind he's been in lately, I'm not sure how he would react if any of you just suddenly appeared in front of him."

Again, Sam was right, and again Scott did not like it. "We can't just leave him there alone."

"No, we can't," Murdoch agreed. "Teresa, you go into the kitchen and help Maria. Scott and I will ride up to the cemetery-"

"Murdoch!" Sam interrupted.

Murdoch sighed. "You didn't let me finish, Sam. Cipriano and Jelly will go in ahead of us. They can tell Johnny the truth, but knowing him, he won't believe it until he sees us. Scott and I will stay out of sight until Johnny is ready. You can wait here. If Johnny's in as bad a shape as you think, we might need you. "

Although his patience was wearing thin, Scott agreed that Murdoch's plan was sound. Cipriano went to get Jelly and to saddle the horses, while Scott and Murdoch waited.

"I can't believe it. There we were in Denver, having a grand time, while Johnny was living his worst nightmare."

"Scott, we couldn't know what was happening here, any more than Johnny could know that we were still alive in Denver."


Johnny didn't know why he was there. Not really. Too many emotions were twisting at his mind and his heart. He couldn't think clearly anymore. Maybe he hoped that just being near Scott would bring the same comfort it had ever since he had found out about his brother. As he sat on the ground, leaning against the cold stone that marked his brother's final resting place, Johnny found out that the comfort he was seeking would not be found.


Startled by a voice he had longed to hear, Johnny looked up. Jelly walked over and squatted down in front of him. "Jelly." He fought to control the surge of overwhelming pain that threatened to turn him into a blubbering fool. "They're gone," was all he could manage to say. Cipriano was standing to the side with his head down.

"Johnny, I need ya to listen to me." Jelly's voice was soft and gentle. "I got somethin' ta tell ya."

Although he heard the words, Johnny's mind refused to let go. "I can't do it Jelly. I tried, but I can't." He searched the older man's eyes, hoping for at least a spark of understanding. "I don't want any of this. I hate it; this ranch, this land, everything. It don't mean nothing without them."

In Jelly's eyes he saw sympathy, but none of the understanding he so desperately needed. "It's killin' me to stay, but I can't leave, either. I got too many people depending on me to keep things going. They got families to support, Jelly. Families that..." Words failed him, leaving him unable to explain the turmoil that was tearing him apart inside.

"Johnny, ya hush, ya hear me. You ain't goin' nowhere."

Jelly's voice was soothing, and Johnny nodded. It didn't matter what the older man said, just that he kept saying something. Johnny needed to hear that voice, the only voice that could settle him down, now that the one desperately needed to hear, had been forever silenced.

"I know yer hurtin', Boy, but there ain't no need. There's been a mistake-"

"It wasn't a damn mistake!" Desperation gave way to anger, to a raging anger that no longer cared to be controlled. Pushing Jelly aside, Johnny surged to his feet and stalked a few paces away. "That train didn't crash because of the ice. It crashed because a bunch of stupid fools at the railroad loaded it down with money and gold. Then a bunch of more stupid fools decided they was gonna take it by making that trestle collapse."


"Money!" Johnny yelled. Pointing towards the graves just beyond where Jelly was standing, Johnny let go of it all. "They're gone! They ain't comin' back! And those bastards didn't even get the money they killed 'em for! Cut the bridge supports and then ran away when the storm got bad! They died for nothing, Jelly! Nothing!"


Over at the edge of the cemetery, hidden behind some tress, Scott and Murdoch listened, their hearts breaking as the true extent of Johnny's anguish became clear. Scott moved to go to his brother, but Murdoch stopped him. No words were necessary this time. Until Jelly could get Johnny to listen, to understand that his family was not buried in the cold dirt a few yards from where Johnny was standing, they could do nothing.

Jelly's voice could be heard as he again tried to do just that. "Johnny, ya got it all wrong. Everyone got it all wrong."

They watched as Johnny's anger died and he sank to his knees. "It don't matter anymore, Jelly. They're gone. Don't matter why." Johnny voice was tired and defeated.

"They ain't gone, Johnny. You ain't lost 'em."

Scott and Murdoch both inhaled sharply at Jelly's blunt words. The old man sounded as desperate as Johnny had only moments before.

Johnny laughed, a bitter laugh void of all humor. "Don't you dare tell me how they'll always be alive if I keep thinkin' of them."

"Good, 'cause that ain't what I wanna tell ya," Jelly groused.

"Well, unless you can tell me that this has all been a dream, that I didn't bury their bodies in this cursed ground, then there ain't nothin' I wanna hear. Not now."

Jelly remained silent, that being his answer. Murdoch and Scott watched, their eyes never leaving Johnny as he remained kneeling on the ground, head bowed and his shoulders slumped forward.

"Don't do this to me, Jelly," Johnny begged. "Please. I can't..."
With that plea, Murdoch's resolve disappeared. Scott watched his father walk towards Johnny, then he followed, just a few paces behind. Jelly looked up at them, and nodded. Johnny had listened to all he would; it was time to show him the truth.

Knees that had seen too many rough days creaked loudly as Murdoch sank down next to his son. A warm hand reached for the trembling shoulders. "John, it wasn't a dream, but it wasn't real either."

Scott looked down on them, holding his breath when Johnny gave no reaction.

"If this ain't real..." he said barely above a whisper. "Dios, I can't lose them again."

"This is real, Son," Murdoch offered gently.

Whether or not it was a conscious reaction Scott was not sure, but very slowly Johnny's body leaned to the right, stopping only when his shoulder came to rest against Murdoch's broad chest. A sharp inhalation was heard, but that was all, and Scott could only assume that it had come from his brother.

Murdoch arms slipped around Johnny's shoulders. He said nothing either; he just held onto Johnny, letting his son come to terms with the truth in his own time, in his own way.     

Sunday, December 25, 1870:

It was Christmas morning, though the late hour made it not seem that way; that, and the heaviness in the young man's heart. He remembered being in the cemetery, of trying to find a way to say goodbye to the people who had come to mean everything to him and not being able to.

Then Jelly had showed up. For a moment Johnny had found some relief from his pain, but the cold hardness of the headstone against which he was leaning took that relief away. Nothing had mattered then, but now it did again. When his father and brother had appeared out of the darkness, when those arms that had always seemed more content to keep him away had held on to him so tightly, when his brother's hand has squeezed his shoulder, Johnny had known his heart would surly bust.

He had been too afraid to move, too afraid to say anything, lest his voice destroyed the illusion. It had felt so real, so right, but it couldn't be and he knew it. Then what he knew began to fall away. The warm breath that seeped down his collar as his father's head rested against his had made it all seem so real, but he couldn't allow himself to believe. He knew if he did, when the dream ended he would have nothing. He could not go through that pain again.

He let the ghosts lead him to his horse, bring him home, and even tuck him into a bed he had not slept in for a long time. Maybe he slept for a while, he wasn't sure, but when he went in search of the proof that he had finally gone totally insane, he was surprised to find the blond ghost sleeping in his brother's bed. That was when he finally started to believe.

The fog lifted and he stared at Scott, listened to the steady breathing, and then, after reaching out and touching a very solid foot through the covers, Johnny accepted that the nightmare was over. So now, as he stared out his bedroom window, why couldn't he shake the feelings of despair that had haunted him for what seemed like forever?

The door behind him squeaked as it was opened. The floorboard creaked as the silent visitor entered his room, then the chair by the table scraped the floor as it was pulled out and gave a squeak when the visitor sat down.

"It will get better, Johnny. You can't just stop feeling some things, just because you want to," Scott's voice told him from the darkness.

Johnny was startled. He knew it had been Scott who was sitting there, but that Scott knew what he was thinking took him by surprise.

*** *** *** ***

Scott's thoughts turned back to a dark time in his life. The former Calvary man had returned to Boston following his release from the war. In true fashion, his grandfather had given him a hero's welcome, though Scott had felt that he had nothing to be honored for.

The hardest part had been his state of mind. His friends, his grandfather, even Julie had all expected him to be happy as if nothing had happened. It was as if they thought he could erase the memories and events of the war, something the young blond had a hard time doing. For a long time after he returned him, Scott woke up from nightmares of his prison time, of soldiers lying dead, the smell of blood everywhere.

The worst thing though was the impassive fools that never ceased to amaze him. He would go to a party or a saloon, and before long someone would ask him to tell them about the fighting, if he killed anyone, and what it had felt like to be a prisoner of war. The blond had a hard enough time trying to erase that time from his mind; there was no way he could talk about it, and especially not with anyone who couldn't care less about him.

It was these memories that enabled Scott to have some understanding of what his brother was going through. Even though his family was alive, the anguish that had become part of Johnny's life was still very real, too. Only time and love and support would help him leave those bitter memories behind. Upon his return from the war, there had been no one there to understand his pain, and he had no intention of letting his brother go through this alone.

*** *** *** ***

Outside the rooster crowed, and Johnny sighed. Turning, he looked into Scott's gray-blue eyes and took a ragged breath. "This is real, ain't it?"

The depth of emotions that were conveyed in Scott's smile - love, trust, regret, reassurance - all of it said as much as the words that followed. "Yes, Johnny. This is real."

And Johnny did believe. Moving over to the bed, he sat down on the edge. "What happened, Scott?"

"We were robbed the first Sunday we were in Denver."

To this Johnny could not help but smile, though it was a sad smile at best. "Left your wallet in the hotel, didn't you?"

There was a pause. "Yes. I felt bad about that for so many reasons, but not once for the reason that mattered the most."

The regret in Scott's voice stirred Johnny's emotions in a way he did not like. If Scott had known that those personal affects would show up on dead bodies that would be mistaken for them, he would have done anything to prevent it.

"It's okay to be mad, Johnny," Scott continued.

"I ain't mad at you..." Johnny hesitated. "I was, though." His voice was barely above a whisper.

"I know. It's alright."

"No, it ain't," Johnny objected. "You were dead," he choked on the word, "and all I could think about was how I was gonna have to figure out a way to go on without you."

Scott snorted softly. "Dead men have no feelings, no worries, no cares. Thinking about me wouldn't have done any good."

"Being mad at you didn't do no good, either."

"Yes, it did," Scott challenged. "You needed to feel that way, or else you would have felt something different."

Johnny looked over at his brother. He was going to ask how Scott would know anything about what he had been going through, but the look on his brother's face kept the words from coming forth. He did understand, though Johnny wasn't quite sure how. Scott had always had his grandfather. How could he possibly understand what it meant to lose it all?

As if he were reading Johnny's mind, Scott said very softly, "It was hard for me, after I came home from war."

No other words needed to be said; Johnny understood. It still floored him to think of Scott being in one of those places for a year. Over the years, Johnny had graced a few prison cells with his company, but never had it been for more than a couple of months. "Does it ever go away?"

"Eventually," Scott answered without having to ask what 'it' was. "Once you get used to thinking a certain way, it takes time to change."

Closing his eyes, Johnny prayed it would be that easy. That with the passage of time the hate in his heart would fade, and the love would return; for now all he could feel was bitterness. "I meant what I said up there, last night, in the cemetery," he admitted to the one person he knew would not judge him.

True to form, Scott answered with understanding. "I know."

Johnny opened his eyes and studied his brother very closely. The unshaven face and mussed hair, combined with the shirt that was on, but not buttoned, all spoke of the relaxed ease that had accompanied him on this morning vigil into Johnny's room. Scott really did understand, though Johnny couldn't for the life of him understand why.

*** *** *** ***

After leaving Johnny to get dressed, Scott returned to his own room, and finished his own morning ritual. Shaved and dressed, Scott walked into the great room and sat down in the chair closest to his father's desk.

"We need to talk, Sir." Scott paused, waiting for his father to look up from the desk.

"How's Johnny doing?" Murdoch seemed to instinctively know that Scott wanted to talk about his younger son.

"He's having a hard time," Scott began. "Dealing with the reality of us being alive."

"But he knows it's true," Murdoch declared confused. "He's seen us, talked to us."

"Just because he knows it, doesn't make the pain and anguish disappear," Scott replied with conviction.

"I don't understand," Murdoch continued. "We're alive. He should be happy."

"He is, Murdoch. But he's also still very angry." With a sigh, Scott embarked on an explanation that he had hoped would not be necessary. "When I came home from the war, everyone thought I should be happy and carefree just because 'it was over'. They wanted me to be like I was before, but I couldn't. It took a long time for the horrors I witnessed to fade, and until they did, I couldn't even consider trying to be the man I had been. It's going to take time for Johnny to get over this, too."

"How did you get over it?" his father asked.

"Time," Scott replied quietly.

"I see," Murdoch murmured. "There's more isn't there?"

"Johnny hates Lancer," Scott continued.

"That, I can understand," Murdoch said with dismay.

Scott was puzzled that his father did not elaborate, however he could feel it was a closed discussion.

*** *** *** ***

Johnny entered the great room. A rush of uncertainty nearly made him turn around when he saw Murdoch sitting behind the desk he had come to think of as his. It also reminded him of a decision he had made; one that the men sitting in that room may or may not approve or, or support.

"Merry Christmas, Johnny."

His father's cheery greeting was accompanied by a smile that only heightened Johnny's discomfort. "Morning," was the only thing he could think of to say. 'Merry' anything just did not seem to fit his mood. Looking down at the floor, he tried to ward off the sickness that had haunted him for most of the night. It had left him during his talk with Scott, but now it was back
and his stomach was rolling.

"Scott, would you go saddle our horses?"  

Expecting anything but that response, Johnny looked up at his father, this new uncertainty bringing a momentary reprieve from the nausea. His father was looking directly at him, but Johnny could not read the older man's expression.

"Sir?" Scott voiced his confusion.

"Saddle our horses, please," Murdoch repeated, but his eyes never wavered away from Johnny.

"Yes, Sir." Scott shot Johnny a confused, but reassuring smile, then departed through the French doors to carry out their father's orders.

"Johnny!" Teresa ran up to Johnny, throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him tightly.

Holding on to his sister, Johnny fought back the tears that threatened to fall. His family was back, and Teresa's exuberance made that all too real. It also made it difficult to breath. "Teresa, you're choking me," he teased.

The young woman released him and took a step back. The tears in her eyes would not be held back, though, and they spilled over and rolled down her cheeks. This time it was Johnny who pulled her close.

"Its okay, Teresa," he soothed as she began sobbing against his chest.

"We didn't know," she cried, her voice muffled by his shirt.

"There was no way you could have known." Looking over her head, Johnny saw her grief reflected on his father's face, and he had to look away. His own anger at them for leaving him alone was still too fresh.

He knew it was irrational, he had known it each time anger had made him lash out at those who, like himself, had also been left behind. "It'll be okay, Honey. You'll see."

Teresa pulled away, nodding her head as she tried to wipe the tears away with her hands. She smiled up at him. "Merry Christmas, Johnny! Maria and I have made a special breakfast. Not only because it's Christmas, but because we love you."

The lump in his throat had to be swallowed. "Gracias."

"Teresa, can you and Maria hold breakfast for about an hour?" Murdoch asked.

Turning towards her guardian, Teresa shrugged. "I suppose," she said hesitantly. "Is something wrong?"

"No," Murdoch dispelled her fears with that simple word and a smile. "I just need to show the boys something. We won't be gone long."

As if on cue, Scott returned. "The horses are saddled." He stopped next to Johnny, and the two men exchanged a confused look.

Murdoch nodded and gave Teresa a hug. "We'll be back soon."

Scott still had his coat on, and waited while Murdoch and Johnny donned theirs. Then the group departed.

*** *** *** ***

As they rode away from the hacienda Scott wondered what Murdoch had in mind. He hoped his father was not going to confront Johnny about his feelings where Lancer was concerned. If he did, there would be repercussions between the brothers. Johnny had confided in him, and Scott did not want his brother to think he could not trust him.

Scott also hoped that Murdoch would not bring up Johnny's emotional state. He knew from personal experience that they had to be there when Johnny needed their support, but that they could not force Johnny to confront his demons until he was ready. Back in Boston a lot of people had tried that with Scott, and instead of helping him, it had only made him even more upset.

It was possible Murdoch wanted to talk to his sons about sharing more of the responsibility of Lancer. Maybe that's how Murdoch thought he could help Johnny regain his love for the ranch. Though Scott thought it was something they needed to discuss, he was not sure that today was the right time to have that talk. Let Johnny settle in to the reality that his family was not dead before hitting him over the head with such an abrupt change in philosophy.

If that was not it, then could his father want that required the three of them to be taking this ride together? Could there possibly be another Christmas present hidden out here? No, he did not believe that was it. Murdoch had purchased both their presents already; besides he had seemed too serious for it to be a gift they could share.

Scott sighed. He would just have to wait until they reached their destination and hope for the best. He said a silent prayer that for once, his father was not going to mess up where Johnny was concerned, and that whatever he had in mind would actually make the younger Lancer feel more secure.

*** *** *** ***

From the top of the hill, Johnny looked out over the ranch, tasting the bile as it rose in his throat. There had been a time when he could sit in this spot forever, seeing only the beauty of a land and a life that had been taken away from him. That was not the case anymore. Now all he saw was a
burden, a drain, a curse that wanted to suck the very life out of him.

"I brought you both up here because I think there's something you need to know," Murdoch began speaking. His eyes surveyed the same view that both his sons were seeing. "Both of you," he added softly.

"What is it, Sir?" Scott asked cautiously. He still did not fully trust Murdoch's motives for this little morning ride.

Johnny watched his father looking out over the land. Since Scott had remembered what he had said last night at the cemetery, then there was a good chance Murdoch did, too. Johnny braced himself for the lecture that was sure to come.

"There was a time - two times, in fact - when I hated this ranch with every fiber of my being."

Startled, Johnny glanced over at Scott, who looked as shocked by Murdoch's statement as Johnny felt. Before either could say anything, though, Murdoch continued.

"The first time was when Scott's mother died, and Scott was taken away." Murdoch's expression turned hard. "I had lost everything that meant anything to me. Catherine was dead," his voice cracked, "and Scott was beyond my reach. I felt like this land had cost me everything that was important, and I hated it."

Steely blue eyes looked over at Johnny. "I lost the hate, though. The bitterness gave way to hope, and I made Lancer my mission. I was going to build this land into a thriving ranch that would support my family, and then I would go to Boston and bring Scott home."

Murdoch's gaze shifted towards Scott. "I don't want to stir up any bad feeling of who did what to whom, all I want you to know was that I kept at it, worked long days with one goal in mind - to make this ranch a place where you could be happy."

Scott nodded, swallowing hard several times as he looked out over the land with a slightly new perspective. He looked over at Johnny and smiled.

"Then I met Maria Avila," his expression softened, but only for a second. "We married and Johnny was born; then she took him away from me. From the same people who told me, after the fact," he said bitterly, "that my wife was carrying on with another man; I learned that she had not been happy at Lancer; that she saw this ranch as a mistress that took me away from her, and used that feeling to justify her own infidelities. All I could think of was how much this land had cost me, again. I wanted to destroy every acre, burned down every tree, fill in every water hole, turn it all into a barren wasteland."

The older man paused, his eyes focused on the mountains in the distance. "It took a long time, but I was eventually able to turn away from my hate. I realized that this land had done nothing to hurt me; it was the actions of people I should have been able to trust that were the sole source of my pain. I learned to love this land, again - to nurture it, and to fight with it against drought and flood. I turned one from one extreme to another - replacing the unjustified hatred with an unrealistic caring. I did not realize that was what I had done until you boys came home."

Reaching out, Murdoch touched Johnny's arm. "The hate will go away, Son. I promise. Just don't ever make the mistake that I did. Don't ever believe that this land can take the place of the people we call family. I would rather you hate Lancer forever, than use it as a substitute for someone who can make you feel alive and free."

Father and son locked eyes. After a moment, Johnny broke eye contact. He had to. The feelings were too intense, he felt too raw, too open to his father's scrutiny.

"I promise, John. It will get better. And until it does, Scott and I will do our best to make the rough times as easy as we can."

*** *** *** ***

The family sat in the great room admiring their gifts. Jelly had already put on the dark blue sweater Teresa had knitted for him, and Sam was looking at the new doctor's bag Scott had purchased for him while in Denver.

"I really like this rifle, Murdoch," Johnny murmured, running his hands reverently over the barrel. "I'm sorry I don't have anything to give any of you."

"We have you, Johnny," Teresa said with a teary smile. "That's all the gift we need."

"How about you share a bottle of tequila with Murdoch and me later on?" Scott suggested, a grin came across his face at the memory of his last one.

"I ain't wasting that good liquor on you," Johnny replied. "Even if you did get me a whole case. Besides you hate tequila."

"I don't know about that, Johnny," Murdoch disagreed. "Scott was not all that opposed to it in Denver." Scott and Murdoch shared a warm glance at the memory of their evening out together.

Johnny raised his eyebrows, wondering what his brother and father had been up to while they were away. He would definitely have to get it out of Scott later.

"I was wondering if the family would mind moving the celebration outside," Scott winked at his father.

"Yes," Murdoch agreed, slipping on the new jacket Scott had gotten him. "I have something to say, but it would be better said after Scott is finished."

The family got their winter clothes on and headed outside. Scott put on the new hat Teresa had bought for him, along with the gloves his father had given him. They walked out the back door.

"Where'd that stallion come from?" Johnny said as his eyes appreciatively took in every facet of the magnificent animal. "You buy him at the auction in Denver?"
Scott nodded and Johnny walked over to the corral fence. "He's a real beauty. You done good, Boston."

"Thank you, and Merry Christmas, Little Brother," Scott said quietly.

Johnny's jaw slacked open. He looked from the horse to his brother, and back again. "He's mine?" Johnny was stunned at the gift. "Scott, you already gave me my gift."

"The minute I saw him, I knew he was the right horse for you," Scott confessed. "Besides, where is it written that I can't get you two gifts?"

"Johnny, that stallion goes along with the surprise I have for the two of you," Murdoch murmured. "After a lot of consideration, I've decided to let the two of you start breeding horses."

"What did you do to him while you were gone?" Johnny demanded, looking at his brother with a look that said he did not believe for a minute that Murdoch had come to this decision on his own.

"I told em' I thought someone done konked 'im on the head," Jelly chimed in.

"It was nothing like that," Murdoch assured his younger son. "I just had a lot of time to think about things." He paused, sharing a look of understanding with his elder son. "And even more time to listen."

Scott motioned to the others to follow him back into the house. He felt his father needed a few moments with Johnny alone. The younger man felt closer to his father since the trip to Denver, and he wanted to give Johnny the same opportunity to discuss things with their father.

"I was wrong when I refused to listen to the two of you," Murdoch confessed. "Tomorrow, I want you and Scott to go get the rest of our things at the railroad depot, but when you get back, the three of us need to sit down and talk."

"Okay," Johnny replied, looking down at the boot he was pushing the dirt with.

"John, you did a fine job taking care of the ranch while we were gone. I'm proud of you, Son."

Johnny looked up, but would not meet Murdoch's gaze. "I doubt you'll say that tomorrow," he said sullenly.


"Tomorrow, Old Man," Johnny said in a pleading voice, his expression reflecting his dismay over having said anything at all. "I can't...don't take today away from me. Please."

Murdoch nodded. "All right, Son, but I promise you that my feelings won't change. I will still be just as proud of you tomorrow."

Johnny swallowed hard. "Don't go makin' promises you can't keep," he whispered softly.


Monday, December 26, 1870:

Johnny was sitting by the big oak desk, only this time he was back in what he had dubbed as Cip's chair, and Murdoch was seated in the leather chair on the other side - the king was back on his throne. Scott was standing off to Murdoch's right, leaning casually against the wall, arms crossed, giving Johnny a look that said 'I'll back you, no matter what'. He could feel his father's eyes on him, Scott's, too.

"Guess you noticed I had to break the lock on your bottom drawer," he said without looking up from where his fingers were toying with a loose string on his pants leg.

"John, this was your desk. That's what you knew to be true, and you acted accordingly." Murdoch's voice was calm, and held no anger or resentment.

The knot in Johnny's stomach tightened. Yesterday Murdoch had said that he wanted Scott and Johnny to have a bigger say in the way the ranch was run. In this case, bigger wasn't better. When it came to this he had called the tune and there would be no compromising his decision.

"May I ask what was in there that you needed so badly?"

There was no antagonism in Murdoch's voice, only a trace of curiosity. Johnny was prepared for a fight, had been up most of the night, running through this conversation in his head, and not once had it been this way. All this niceness was making him nervous and edgy. Unable to sit still any longer, he stood up and walked over to the fireplace. It was time to get the tune called and face the dancers.

"I've hired an engineer to put up an iron bridge over the river leading to the south pasture. The old one collapsed, again," he stressed the word to make the point that this was not something that he had done on a whim. "The engineer, Jeff Demont, said the ground wasn't stable enough, and that's why the bridge we been using keeps falling in and needing to be repaired. He found a better spot a little ways down river. We blasted the pass through the rocks leading to it a couple days ago, and they'll be back sometime after the New Year, when the iron for the bridge has been cast." Having said it all, Johnny braced himself for the explosion.

*** *** *** ***

It had only been a few weeks after he met his father when Scott had instigated a similar conversation with Murdoch over replacing the wooden bridge with one made of iron. This was after they had spent two days making repairs just so the herd could be moved out of the winter pasture. Murdoch had maintained that the crossing was fine the way it was. Even after Scott pursued the matter on his own by acquiring a general job scope from a San Francisco engineering firm, Murdoch had refused to listen. Johnny had to have had a good reason for breaking the lock on the desk drawer, and Scott wondered if his brother had been looking for that very report, even though, to the best of his recollections, this disagreement had taken place when Johnny was still laid up from being shot.

He had to admit that Johnny's approach was very different than the one he had used. Scott had tried reason, and when his father had insisted he would not change his mind, the matter had been dropped by both parties. After all, he had only just become and partner and he had agreed that Murdoch called the tune. Johnny, however, was not giving their father a choice. He had stated his intentions and Scott could tell, as he was sure their father could, as well, that the former gunfighter had not intentions of backing down from this argument.

Part of Scott was still confident that he had handled the discussion appropriately at the time, but another part wondered he had inadvertently set himself up to fail. Maybe, in trying to reason with Murdoch, he had actually given his father a way out. It could be that the stubborn was waiting for him, and for Johnny, to show that they were more than capable of standing up for themselves. Having been trained his whole life to respect those in authority, he had simple given in when the man in charge had said that things would be done his way.

The blond pulled himself back from his thoughts, looking from his father to his brother. Regardless of his reasons, Johnny was on the right track and no matter what, Scott intended to stand on his brother's side. It was time for a change in the leadership of Lancer and he was more than willing to back Johnny in whatever way was necessary.

*** *** *** ***

The leather chair creaked as Murdoch sat back. He watched as Johnny stood by the fireplace, staring him down. He was so unlike the young man they had left behind just three weeks ago. In the past, when it came to business matters Johnny had displayed very little confidence in himself, only voicing his opinion on rare occasions, and then acting as if he was not sure of himself. Murdoch had to admit that this newly-found self-assuredness looked good on him. If only he had chosen something else on which to make his stand.

"Johnny, I know you made this deal when you believed Scott and I were..." the older man paused. He still found it very disconcerting to think of himself as being dead. "You made this decision when you believed you had the authority to this yourself. However-"

"There ain't no 'however' to it, Murdoch." Johnny's voice was icy cold. "It's a done deal."

Murdoch's left eyebrow rose high on his forehead. Still, his voice remained calm and collected. "And if Scott and I object?"

"Murdoch-" Scott began, only to stop short when Murdoch's hand was raised.

Murdoch heard the concern in Scott's voice, but his attention was focused solely on Johnny. He had seen something in his son from the moment Johnny had entered the room, but he could not define what it was. He had watched Johnny carefully, had seen the subtle changes as some kind of internal struggle was taking place inside his son. Something else going on here, and he was determined to find out what it was.  

"Scott and I can block the funding," he said firmly.

"Yeah, Old Man, you can." Johnny continued to stare him down, not flinching, not looking away, not hesitating. "But that bridge is going up, even if I have to hire out on a few jobs to get the money."

"You can't do that, Johnny!" Scott gasped.

"I can, and I will!" Johnny shot back.

This exchange had given Murdoch all the clues he needed; Johnny was looking for a fight, or maybe he was just expecting one. Either way, if he was tossing Madrid into the mix, then he was not about to broker any compromise. Something was definitely very wrong, but Murdoch could not figure out what was so essential about that wooden bridge that would make Johnny this combative. "John, let's discuss-"

With those words Johnny exploded. "There's not going to be any discussing this! You weren't here. Neither one of you was here. You didn't have to stand there and watch that bridge turn into a pile of kindling. You didn't have to put two dozen animals down because they was too hurt to save. You didn't have to try not to think of how each one of them could have been any one of our hired hands. You didn't have to pull that little girl-" Johnny stopped short, his eyes blazing and his breaths coming in short gasps. He turned away from them, facing the fireplace, bracing himself against the mantle with outstretched arms.

Murdoch and Scott exchanged concerned looks, but Murdoch shook his head when Scott made a move towards his brother. Instead, Murdoch rose from the chair and went to his son, with Scott following at a few paces. Standing behind Johnny, Murdoch placed his hands on his son's shoulders. He could feel the tremors that were coursing through his taut frame and he knew; this had nothing to do with a bridge, at least not one that was on Lancer. "John," he began, only to stop when Johnny tensed even more.

Large fingers that had never done so before, began kneading at the tight muscles. They worked, gently but firmly, until Murdoch felt the tightness begin to give way. Only then did he feel it was safe to try to address his son again. "John, I'm sorry you had to go through any of that. I'm even more sorry that you had to do it alone."

"They were the prettiest eyes you ever saw." Johnny's voice was barely above a whisper. "They weren't blue or green; they was a little of each. She was so small. There wasn't a mark on her, but she was dead just the same." A hard shudder shook his entire body. "I see 'em every time a close my eyes, staring up at me, all blank and dead. After...they started looking blue like yours, then they was a different blue like Scott's, then they was brown like Teresa's."

*** *** *** ***

Scott's heart broke for his brother's pain, he found himself remembering a dark time in his own life. In the war, he had experienced the pain of death first hand, but they had always been soldiers. He knew that innocent people, women and children, had been killed, too, but he had, thankfully, missed out on having to witness such a thing. The pain on Johnny's face was so real, Scott's first instinct was to want to trade places with his brother, to take that pain onto himself. The former gunfighter had seen enough pain and suffering in his lifetime; it was unfair for him to have to go through this much more.

He had been stunned when Johnny threatened to return to his former profession if he had to, to get the bridge built properly. This was one thing that Scott would never allow to happen. He would argue with Murdoch for as long as it took to get him to see that his son's way was the only way.

The loss of life should also be something his father should consider. They had lost a significant amount of cattle when the bridge had collapsed and it could have been any number of the ranch hands helping move the cattle. As much as Murdoch claimed to care about the beeves, he should be the first one to agree to the metal bridge but for some reason he was resisting the change. Scott wished he understood why.

The memories of that dead little girl would haunt Johnny for a long time to come. Scott was determined to there for his brother, knowing that was the only thing he could do to help. That was all he could do. He just hoped his support would be enough to help Johnny get past this and pick up his life and go on. The blond knew the former gunfighter would never forget the train wreck or the loss of life.

Murdoch had upset Johnny and Scott was not happy about it. That Murdoch had dared infer that Scott would stand with him against building an iron bridge infuriated Scott, even though he suspected that his father was trying to get Johnny to open up by forcing his hand. Scott had to believe that Murdoch was sincere about trying to see Johnny in a more positive light, but if he was not, then he would find out that when push come to shove, by Johnny would be where he would stand.

*** *** *** ***

After a few minutes of silence, the massage, or maybe just the physical contact that Johnny seemed to bestow so freely to others, had the shoulders beneath Murdoch's hands feeling a little more relaxed. Standing to the side, Scott held a glass of water, waiting patiently for father and brother to find their way beyond the impasse.

"John, come sit down. Talk to us, Son."

Very slowly Johnny turned and allowed the hands on his shoulders to guide him over to the sofa. He sat down, his face pale and his eyes staring off into the distance, seeing nothing that was actually in the great room of the Lancer hacienda. Murdoch took the glass of water from Scott and pressed it into Johnny's hand. The contact with the colder surface seemed to draw Johnny out of his trance. He took a drink and then sat there, his head bowed, not even lifting when Scott sat down on the other side of him and placed a hand on Johnny's shoulder.  

"It's real, Johnny," Scott said very softly.

The dark-haired head slowly rose. A small smile turning up the corners of Johnny's mouth. "I know, Brother," he said just as softly.

Murdoch watched the seemingly insignificant interaction between his two boys and knew there was nothing insignificant about it. For all their differences, for all the time they had spent apart, his sons had forged a deep bond. Murdoch was grateful, too, though at times he had found himself feeling left out in the cold. This was not one of those times.

Scott smiled at Johnny, and Johnny gave an almost imperceptible nod. Then sapphire blue eyes turned towards his father. "Murdoch, the spot where you got that bridge, well it just ain't stable. The ground on top makes it look like it is, but Jeff explained to me about how the ground underneath it what moves. That's what been causing all the problems."

When Murdoch said nothing, only nodded to let Johnny know that he was listening, Johnny continued. "I wanted...I had to do this right, Murdoch. I took Cipriano with us when Jeff was looked for a better spot, so he could say whether it was a bad spot for the beeves. I figured he would know better than anyone." Johnny looked down. "Better than me, anyway."

The gray-haired head nodded. "That was very good thinking, Son."

With those words of encouragement, Johnny looked back up at his father. "He found a spot, down where the river dips behind those big rocks, just past that crooked stretch."

"Yes, I know the spot. I assume that's what that blasting you mentioned was about?"

"Yeah." Johnny took another drink from the glass of water. "By blasting out the rocks, we made kind of a natural chute leading up to the bridge. It'll make it a lot easier getting the herd over the bridge, and it'll be a whole lot safer," Johnny paused, "for everyone."

They were returning to dangerous territory and Murdoch did not want Johnny bolting again, but he really needed to get a better grasp on the situation. "Son, how many head did we lose?"

"Twenty-four when the bridge collapsed," Johnny swallowed nervously. "Frank said they had to put down a couple more that had managed to make it to the other side, but was still too bad off to save."

Murdoch pursed his lips. Twenty-four head and the bridge. That was a tough hit. "What happened?"

"The herd spooked at something. No one saw what. Cipriano thinks maybe the ones on the bridge felt it wasn't safe and panicked. That started the rest of them goin', and then there was nothing we could do but watch." Johnny snorted. "Horses got that much sense, but I never figured them beeves'd be smart enough to figure out they was standing on something that wasn't gonna hold 'em."

"Smart is a relative term in this case," Scott interjected. "If they hadn't stampeded, the bridge might not have collapsed."

This comment brought up another question. "The bridge is totally gone?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny nodded. "Yep." He paused, then said very deliberately. "It could have been our men on the bridge when it went, instead of just the beeves. I..." Johnny looked at Scott, then at Murdoch, "we ain't got no right asking the men to put their lives in danger on that death trap. Ranch work is dangerous enough. If we can make it less of a risk that some woman's gonna lose her husband and some kids are gonna lose their pa, ain't it our obligation to do it?"

*** *** *** ***

It came as no surprise to Scott that his brother made a convincing argument. Johnny was right; it was not fair to expect the ranch hands to risk their lives crossing a bridge that had already been proven unstable. Nor was it fair to their families to lose them because it was cheaper for Lancer to keep repairing that wooden bridge. That was the heart of the matter, and in Scott's opinion there was not one person's life worth risking over building another unstable structure. It did not make logical sense to put the cattle in jeopardy either.

Though Murdoch had complimented Johnny on taking Cipriano with them when they went to check out a possible new site for the bridge, Scott was worried his father was going to shoot down yet another of his brother's ideas. If only he could get his father to listen, really listen to Johnny, then he might realize that his younger son's plan was the only way to go.

The issues here were more than the twenty four head of cattle for Johnny, though, and Scott had to admit for himself, too. It was a power play between Murdoch and his sons. The gray-haired rancher was determined that things would be done his way. The blond only hoped that the man would remember their discussions in Denver. In particular the one where Scott had warned him that if he did not start letting his son's make some decisions in regards to Lancer he ran the risk of them moving on.

Both Scott and Johnny had dealt with their agreement to let Murdoch call the tune, but the truth of the matter was they were both getting very weary of having to check with their father every time they wanted to change something for the better.

Johnny was going to win this battle. Scott instinctively read his brother's mind, knowing the former gunfighter had meant every word he said. He would do whatever it took to see that when that bride was replaced. Johnny would make sure that it would not collapse again, even at the expense of returning to a life he had hated.

*** *** *** ***

Johnny watched Murdoch's face, trying to read his father's thoughts. He couldn't, and that bothered him, but at the same time, he did not see the stubborn determination to fight this idea, and for that gave him hope. "There's a contract in the top desk drawer that explains why this idea is better, how it will save us money over the long haul, and why the old one don't work."

"You mean a proposal?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny heaved a mental sigh. "No, I mean a contract. Signed, sealed, and delivered." With determination, he met his father's wary stare. "My name's on that paper. This is a done deal. I'll do whatever it takes to make it work."

His meaning was specific. "John, you will not go back to using your gun."

Unwilling to back down, not on this, Johnny kept his gaze steady. "My name is on that contract, Murdoch. I'll back it up any way I can."

"Murdoch, why don't we have Johnny take us out there. That way he can show us what the engineer showed him. Then we can come back an go over the propo..." Scott turned to Johnny and corrected himself, "the contract."

"We're supposed to go to Cross Creek and pick up the rest of the stuff you all couldn't haul back in the wagon," Johnny reminded Scott.

"You can do that tomorrow," Murdoch declared. His hand grasped Johnny on the knee. "This bridge matter is more important than a few items we can live without for another day. Scott has made a very good suggestion, so let's go for a ride."

*** *** *** ***

By the time the three men returned to the hacienda, Johnny was feeling much better. Although Murdoch had not actually agreed to back the project, he had listened to Johnny's rendition of Jeff's assessments and had even smiled when he saw the rocky pass that would be so perfect for their needs. However, as soon as they rode up to the house, Johnny's good feelings died as they weaved their way through the multitude of carriages and buggies.

"It looks like the whole town is here," Scott remarked with a hint of astonishment.

They were no sooner on the ground, when the French doors burst open. Within seconds, Murdoch and Scott were surrounded by a swarm of friends and neighbors, all of them expressing their relief that the two men were still alive.

Very casually, Johnny grabbed Charlemagne and Caledonia's reins and led them into the barn with Barranca. He had dealt with all this on the day he had buried his family, only without any of the good feelings, and he was not up to facing all those people again. Part of him felt that the mistake was all his fault, that he should have done more to make sure that the bodies were really his family.

He had caught a glimpse of the hurriedly erected tables in the courtyard and the bounty of food that was laden on them, so he doubted the uninvited guests would be leaving any time soon. It looked like he would have to wait until tomorrow before he would find out if anything he had said and showed his father would sway the stubborn old man's opinion about the bridge.    

Tuesday, December 27, 1870:

It was still early when Johnny knocked on Scott's bedroom door. He waited until he heard the muffled invitation to enter before opening the door. Scott was standing in front of the washstand, his face half shaven, and his expression one of worried curiosity as he watched Johnny enter.

"What?" Johnny asked, uncomfortable under the unusual scrutiny.

"Since when did you take up knocking?"

Without answering, Johnny plopped down on Scott's bed, laid his head back against the wooden headboard, and sighed heavily. "Since everything feels so different."

Seconds later, the bed dipped as Scott sat down next to him. "We are not different."

Those four little words said so much. "Thanks, Scott."

Scott gave his leg an affectionate slap, and then went back to his shaving.

After a few minutes, Johnny got to the true point of his visit. "You think I got through to the Old Man about the bridge?"

There was a splashing sound as the razor was dunked in the water basin. "I think you did. I know you convinced me," Scott stated firmly.

Again, Johnny felt the warmth of the affection and trust, the loss of which had left him feeling cold and skittish even before he had finally walked away from the cemetery two weeks prior, his family buried and his heart lost. The bed dipped again, and Johnny looked over into Scott's eyes. "What?" he asked sheepishly.

"You should have stuck around for the celebration," Scott teasingly admonished, but his tone conveyed his total understanding of why Johnny had felt the need to avoid the well-wishers. Turning serious, he added, "I wish you could have been there to hear Murdoch being congratulated. Everyone, I mean everyone, told him what a fine job you did running things."

Recalling how his manners had been anything but stellar during those dark days, Johnny snorted. "I'll just bet they did."

"They did, Johnny." Scott was totally serious. "A few, a very few, admitted that they didn't think you could do it, but after seeing you successfully fight both your own demons and the string of adversities that seemed to be dogging your heels, they have changed their tune. They have a whole new respect for you."

Johnny stared across the room, Scott's words rumbling around in his brain. On one hand they were comforting, reassuring, and just plain nice to hear. On the other hand, they bothered him more than he cared to admit. Having to prove himself to others was nothing new; he had been doing it for most of his life. In fact, his life as Johnny Madrid had been all about proving himself. So why did it hurt so much to know that there had been those who had expected him to fall flat on his face?

"I always knew you could do it."

Scott's unwavering confidence once again gave Johnny's whole outlook a lift. "You did, huh?" he asked with a teasing grin.

"Yes, I did." Scott's smile faded and he looked at Johnny with regret. "I'm just sorry that you had to, especially like that."

A strained silence engulfed the two brothers. Johnny still felt that he had been his own worst enemy, that he had taken a few pieces of the puzzle - Scott's wallet and Murdoch's belt buckle, and an incomplete telegram – and formulated a picture without even trying to see if they could fit together some other way.

That was his cross to bear, though. One hint that he felt this way and Scott would be all over him until he admitted that it wasn't so. It all could have been avoided, there was no denying it, so there was no point in getting Scott all hot and bothered over something that couldn't be changed.


Pulled away from his thoughts, Johnny looked up to see Scott staring at him. "Yeah?"

"I'm proud of you." Scott's expression remained warm and comforting, but this time the slap to Johnny's leg was a bit more forceful. "That being said, get your boots off my bed."

*** *** *** ***

The brothers entered the great room, Johnny just a few steps behind his older brother. They were returning from a ride that had been deemed a necessary after-breakfast activity. Scott sighed deeply; that was the one thing he had wanted to do since getting home. The horses had sensed the brothers' need to taste a bit of freedom, and had given their all. It had been an invigorating morning.

"Sorry, we're late," Scott apologized as they approached Murdoch's desk. "I'm afraid Johnny had a hard time convincing me to come home. It's a beautiful day out there." He was unsure what their father wanted to discuss with them, and was a bit leery of what this 'talk' might entail.

"Not a problem, Boys. I was just catching up on things," Murdoch replied, waving their tardiness off as inconsequential.

Scott sat in the chair closest to the big oak desk, while Johnny perched on the arm of the couch.

Slim fingers nervously picked at an imaginary piece of lint off his pants. A silence fell over the room. "You wanted to see us," Johnny announced suddenly.

Johnny's impatience brought a grin to Scott's face. The former gunfighter hated it when someone kept him waiting. He tended to revert to what Scott referred to as 'Madrid' mode whenever that happened.

"What I wanted to tell the both of you is that I have decided, after much consideration," the gray-haired rancher glanced at his older son and then his younger. "I've decided that it is time I gave you two equal say in the running of the ranch."

"Why?" Johnny said too softly.

Scott could see that this was not what his brother expected to hear. He had confided on their ride to the blond that he thought Murdoch was going to turn down is plan for the metal bridge and that Murdoch would say he called the tune and that would be that.

"How equal?" Scott asked, nervously. He had hoped that little 'talk' with Murdoch in Denver would prompt his father to consider some changes, but he had not once contemplated this result. This was so much more than he could have ever hoped for.

"Equal as in all three of us will call the tune," Murdoch responded, smiling nervously. "I have to admit, it's not going to be easy for me, but we'll work it out."

"Why now?" Johnny repeated, just as softly.

"When you two first came here, we were strangers to each other," his father said, looking his younger son straight in the eyes, but there was no challenge in the older man's demeanor. "You've both worked hard and you've learned a lot. Someday this will be all yours, so there really is no point in not giving you more rein now that you've proven your capabilities."

Johnny was still not convinced. "This got anything to do with me and that bridge?"

"No, Son, it doesn't," Murdoch assured his younger son. "I've been thinking about this ever since Scott got me to agree to the two of you branching out into horse breeding. I decided it was time to make this move before I knew of anything that had been happening here during our absence."

"You know we could take advantage of this," Johnny pressed. "Make a deal to out vote you whenever we wanted."

"Yes, you could," Murdoch agreed calmly.

Scott watched his brother closely. He wasn't sure what was going through his brother's mind, but he hoped that their father would continue refusing to be baited.

"You ain't worried about that happening?"

"No, I am not, Johnny. If I was, I wouldn't be making this change."

Two pairs of blue eyes met and locked. A silent battle of wills took place, and in the end, they both were the victors. No words were said, but Johnny's brief nod and Murdoch's answering smile made Scott breath a little easier.

"I also wanted to talk to you about something I planned to do for Teresa." Murdoch carefully explained the parcel of land he had purchased with the intent of keeping it for a wedding present for his young ward when the time came for her to wed.

"That's a good idea," Johnny said quietly.


"It's fine with me," Scott agreed, nodding his head. He sighed quietly. He still was not totally sure of what had just happened, but for the first time it really felt like they were all beginning to feel like a family, with no division of power, and no one being more 'important' than the other.

"We better get going to Cross Creek to pick up the rest of your stuff," Johnny said as he stood up.

"Right," Scott agreed as he headed towards his brother.

"Wait a minute. I'm not quite done, yet." Murdoch commanded. The brothers turned, both thinking that this had to have been too good to be true. Their father motioned for them to come over to the desk, where he handed Scott a document.

Scott quickly skimmed over it and smiled. Without hesitation, he picked up a pen off the desk and signed his name just below Murdoch's. Then he turned to Johnny and handed the contract to him.

Johnny did not have to read it. He had read it so many times that he knew most of it by heart. Looking up, he glanced from his father to his brother, and then back at the document in his hand. It was the contract for the bridge, but now, underneath his name, both Murdoch and Scott had put their signatures.

This was just the ranch copy, but this seal of approval meant more to Johnny than he could ever say. Yes, it was true that his older brother had already investigated the possible changes to the structure, but it had been Johnny who had approved the relocation and had gone so far as to have the blasting completed. This was his project, and now he had the support of the two most important people in his life. Another pound of burden slipped from his shoulders.

"I don't know what to say," he whispered, still finding it hard to believe for some reason.

"You don't have to say anything," Scott assured him, grinning. "It was a sound idea, and we would be fools to fight it."

"I only wish I had thought of it," Murdoch grumbled, good-naturedly. "You two better get a move on, or it will be dark before you get back."

*** *** *** ***

"Is this all there is?" Johnny looked at the meager contents of the wagon with a frown.

"I believe so." Scott was staring down at the list in hand, checking the items off with a pencil. With a triumphant smile, he made a final mark on the paper, then folded it up and put it and the pencil into his jacket pocket. "Yes. That's everything."

Johnny shrugged, but climbed up into the buckboard. He didn't understand why his family hadn't just brought it all with them in the first place. There should have been enough room in the wagon they rented. Still, it had been nice to get away from the ranch for a while.

As Scott flipped the reins and they began moving away from the loading dock, Johnny cringed as he remembered the incident that occurred right after breakfast that morning. Frank had come to the house with a problem with one of the line shacks that he was bringing Mr. Lancer's attention.

Johnny had questioned Frank and was halfway through issuing his orders when he noticed Scott and Murdoch standing just off to the side, smiling at him like a pair of foxes that had been given free roam of the hen house. Even Frank was grinning as if he were in on the same joke. That was when Johnny realized that he had reacted like he was still the only one in charge.

After Frank left, Murdoch and Scott had assured him that they were not the least bit offended, and Murdoch even said that the orders Johnny had given were exactly what he would have had the men do if he had been given the chance. They both seemed totally amused by the incident, but Johnny had been rattled by it, and he still felt off kilter. He wondered if he would ever feel 'right' again.

"Johnny, I must be going blind."

Alarmed, Johnny looked over at his brother, but relaxed a bit when he saw those gray-blue eyes dart back towards the road, before meeting Johnny's again. There was nothing wrong with Scott's eyesight. "What are you talking about?"

A teasing smile tugged at Scott's mouth even as he slapped the reins to urge Buckwheat and Barley to keep up a more acceptable pace. "I've looked everywhere. Either I'm missing something, or I'm going blind, because I can't find it."

"What are you looking for?"

"My birthday present," Scott said with a dramatic sigh.

This sparked Johnny's memory. The saddle! Johnny clearly remembered bringing it into the house on Scott's birthday; the night he figured he had come darn close to drinking himself to death. The next morning that sobering reality had hit him hard. On one hand he would have welcomed death, but on the other, he feared it as he never had before. The disappointment in his family's eyes was not something he wanted to spend all of eternity having to see.

It had taken everything in him, but he had forced himself to change his attitude. He had cleaned up the great room and straightened out his thinking, for the most part, but for the life of him he could not remember moving the saddle. He had to have, though, because it definitely was not still on the arm of the chair by the fireplace anymore. "Would you believe I lost it?"

Two eyebrows rose high enough that they were nearly covered by blond bangs. "You lost my birthday present?"

Johnny shrugged. "I had it out on your birthday. Maybe I put it back and just don't remember doing it?"

"Put it back where?"

"In the t-" Johnny stopped and grinned over at Scott. The saddle had not just up and walked away, so there was no sense in giving up his fun over it. "Back in the forest, of course."

Scott's mouth slacked open. "The forest?"

"Sure, ain't that where you told Murdoch was the best place to be hiding trees?"

"You got me a tree," Scott deadpanned.

Smugly, Johnny sat back in the seat and pulled his hat down over his eyes.

*** *** *** ***

Murdoch sat at the head of the table, relieved that they were all once more at home, safe and sound. His only other wish was to hear his sons bantering with each other across the table. Instead, the meal had been quiet, with only an occasional question asked back and forth.

Part of the problem was that Teresa and Scott both felt it would be highly inconsiderate to discuss what they did while they were in Denver considering what Johnny had been through. The other part was that no one wanted to pressure Johnny by asking too many questions about what had happened while they were gone. After eliminating those two options, there just was not that much left to say.

Glancing over at his younger son, he saw a man trying to work through a difficult experience. Scott had said it would take time, and he knew that even better after witnessing Johnny's emotional upheaval the previous morning. The truth be told, that incident had scared the older man.

Watching his son being tormented by a nightmare that he had endured all alone tore his heart out. Scott had assured him that Johnny would eventually be able to get beyond the intense memories, but what hurt Murdoch the most, was that Scott had also assured him that this was something that would never totally go away. Scott had the horror of the war, and now Johnny had the horrors of too much death. Both his boys carried a harsh burden, and Murdoch would give anything to be able to take that from them.

"Why don't we retire to the great room," Murdoch announced, rising from the table. His family rose in agreement, seemingly as relieved to escape from the confines of the dinner table as he was.

"I'll be there in a few minutes." Johnny waited until they were gone before turning to Maria, who was clearing the table.

"Maria," Johnny asked quietly. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure his brother was not in earshot. "Did you find anything unusual when you were cleaning the great room, oh, about a week ago?"

The older woman looked at him in confusion, but suddenly a huge smile broke out on her face. "Sí" she exclaimed in a loud whisper.

"Where'd ya put it?" He asked urgently.

"It is back in the montes," Maria assured him, smiling as she headed for the kitchen with the load of dishes.

*** *** *** ***

"Where do you suppose Johnny went?" Scott asked.

"He said he'd be here in a few minutes," Murdoch replied. "Maybe he went to check on that horse you bought him?"

"Actually, I went to the forest to cut down a tree," Johnny explained, walking quietly into the great room, carrying a saddle, which he placed on the back of the sofa. "Feliz Cumpleaños, Hermano."

Scott was stunned at the meaning behind this gift. He walked over speechless, running his hands over the saddle, his fingertips tracing the detailed tooling of the oak tree that graced the horn. He had never seen anything like it. "It's beautiful, Johnny," he whispered as he looked over at his brother.  

Once again, words did not have to be said between them. Johnny could tell that this meant more to Scott than any words could convey.

"But you already gave me my birthday present," the blond man weakly protested.

"Sure I did," Johnny laughed. "But a few months too early don't count."

Teresa glanced at Murdoch, who shrugged his shoulders. "What other present?" she asked curiously.

Scott answered quickly, "It's not important."

"It's okay, Scott," Johnny insisted, giving his brother a look of appreciation. He knew Scott would not want to say anything that would make Johnny look foolish in front of the family, but that wasn't going to happen. It had been an honest mistake. "Remember a few months back, when I saw Scott's name in that bible in the attic?" Johnny asked Teresa.

"Yes," Teresa giggled. "That Bible belonged to my grandmother, and the 'Scott' you found was my great uncle."

"Johnny thought that was me, and that date was my birthday. I found that out when he gave me my present that morning - the wallet that was stolen in the robbery," Scott explained.

"I made a side trip to my room before headin' out to the forest." Johnny handed Scott the wallet that had been returned by the marshal. Turning towards his father, he handed Murdoch the belt buckle that had been Scott's birthday present to him a few months before. "Thought you two might want these back."

Murdoch fingered the metal buckle, his face full of emotion. "Thank you, Son."

"Thank you, Johnny," Scott murmured. The wallet was the first thing his brother had ever given him, and even if it had been ruined in the crash, he would keep it always.

"Da nadda," Johnny replied with a wave of his hand.

"You're wrong," Scott answered, his voice lowered so only Johnny could hear. "It means everything to me." He turned to his father and sister and smiled. "I'm going to go put this in the tack room so I can try it out tomorrow."

*** *** *** ***

Johnny leaned against the paddock fence, watching his Christmas present burn off some excess energy. The black stallion bucked a couple of times before lowering himself to the ground and rolling vigorously in the dirt. After climbing back to his feet, he turned to Johnny, pawed at the ground and snorted, then turned tail and sprinted to the other side of the enclosure to graze.

"Couldn't wait 'til you got over there on the grass to roll around, could you?" Johnny asked aloud.

"It's always more fun to get dirty," a deep voice said from behind. The stocky form of his father appeared next to Johnny. "Especially when the one who just groomed you is standing there watching."

Johnny let free a wisp of a smile. He had slipped out to watch the sunset and to check on the stallion. Well, that's the excuse he was telling even himself. The truth was that he had needed to get away. The walls had been closing in around him, what with all the emotions that had been stirred up with Scott's birthday gift. "Guess all horses are alike," he said softly.

"Not just horses," Murdoch said just as softly, his eyes focused on the black horse across the paddock. "I seem to recall a certain little boy who thought it was great fun to run from the bathtub to the nearest bit of dirt."

The heat rose in Johnny's cheeks. "I don't remember none of that."

"Not surprising. You were very young."

Not wanting to get into the reason why he never got the chance to do things with his father that he would have been old enough to remember, Johnny changed the subject. "Murdoch, about this morning, it won't happen again."

"What-" Murdoch began, only to stop himself. "You mean about stepping in when Frank came in to report the problem at the line shack?"

"Yeah," Johnny nodded. He was both surprised and comforted when Murdoch laid his arm across Johnny's shoulders.

"Son, you have to quit beating yourself up over that. I understand. So, does Scott. I'd be willing to bet that it will happen again at some point; it's what you've gotten used to. I wouldn't even be surprised if one of the men came up and specifically addressed you about a problem, even if Scott and I were standing right there. It's the way things have been."

The arm around his shoulders tightened, and Johnny closed his eyes, savoring the contact that only a few short days ago he had known he would never feel again.

"Johnny, I didn't get a chance to tell you last night, what with the unexpected guests and all, but I did keep my promise."

Johnny opened his eyes and looked up at his father. Those blue eyes that once seemed to be so judgmental of everything he did, were now looking at him with understanding and respect.

"I was proud of you, yesterday," Murdoch said without breaking the eye contact. "I still am, today, too."

Wednesday, December 28, 1870:

Murdoch entered the Hacienda after giving Jelly a rather lengthy list of supplies that needed to be picked up in town. The old man grumbled, but finally agreed to take one of the hands with him to help out with the large order.

Returning to the hacienda, Murdoch stood in the doorway to the dining room, watching his ward as she sat at the table, head down and oblivious to his presence. She was wearing a pretty blue dress with a ribbon in her hair. Teresa was writing a letter, which he could only assume was to Murray.

He wondered how time could pass so quickly. It seemed like yesterday she was sitting at the table with pigtails. And only the day before that Paul would stack a couple books on her chair so that she could reach her plate.

"Teresa," he said quietly as he walked in. "I've been meaning to talk to you about the party on Saturday." He sat down on the chair across from her.

"I've already talked to Maria," she informed him with barely concealed exuberance. "We're going to have a mixture of Johnny and Scott's favorite foods."

"That ought to be interesting," Murdoch murmured. The only food he knew his sons had in common was a nice juicy steak.

"It's going to be perfect, a blend of Mexican and American dishes. I'm writing Murray about it now. It would be so nice if he could be here to." A dreamy smile captivated her delicate features for a brief moment, then she gathered herself and turned to Murdoch. "Now, what did you want to ask me."

"It's about the list of people you're planning to invite," Murdoch began. "I'm not sure Johnny will be comfortable with a big party. You know he doesn't like being around a lot of people, and right now, I think he'll be even more adverse to the thought. You know he didn't even make an appearance the other night when the neighbors showed up unexpectedly."

"I had already thought about that," Teresa admitted. "I talked to Scott, since the party is for him, too. He said he would much rather have a small family dinner."

"Really?" Murdoch raised his eyebrows. "I would have thought he would rather enjoy all the hoopla."

"I think Scott has had one too many big birthday parties," the young woman said knowingly. "He told me that what he really wanted was a nice quiet dinner with his family."

"So, it will be just us?" Previous experience had taught him not to take anything for granted when it came to a Teresa/Maria planned celebration.

"Well, I did invite Jelly, and he's going to take invitations to Val and Sam," Teresa confessed. "Jelly and Sam are like part of the family, and Val has been Johnny's friend for a long time."

"Fine," Murdoch nodded in agreement. "But that's it, otherwise before you know it you'll have invited everyone in Morro Coyo, Spanish Wells, and Green River."

"I swear," Teresa promised. "No more."

*** *** *** ***

Scott finished saddling his horse, wondering what this mysterious 'ride' his brother wanted to go on was all about. He had been loading bales of hay into the loft when Johnny called to him away, saying that Lester was going to finish up the job. When Scott asked him what was so important, Johnny had simply told him to hurry up and saddle his horse.

"Where are we going?" Scott asked for the third time as they rode away from the hacienda.

"I want to show you something?" Johnny replied mysteriously.

"Johnny," Scott said impatiently. "I've seen the whole ranch, what could you possibly have to show me?"

"Patience is a virtue. Isn't that what you're always tellin' me?" Johnny asked with a teasing grin.

They rode on in silence, past the lake they went swimming in during the summer after a long hot day of working out on the range. After traveling a few miles, Johnny pulled up on his reins as they came upon the meadow that was between the lake and the east grazing range. He slipped off his horse and turned, grinning at his brother.

Scott got off Charlemagne and looked around. "Okay, I give up. It's a meadow. Looks the same as it did the last time we rode this way."

"Yeah, but last time we rode this way we weren't looking for the perfect spot for our horse breeding operation," Johnny said excitedly. He pointed to his left. "I was thinking we could put the barns over there."

"Yes!" Scott nodded, suddenly feeling the surge of excitement that had already claimed his brother. Turning he waved his in towards the area just to the left of where Johnny had pointed. "The paddocks would be perfect there."

"And it's close to the hacienda," Johnny added. "Save us wasting time traveling back and forth."

"We could put up something small, like a line shack?" Scott said speculatively. "Or a room added on to the barn, in case we need to stay overnight."

"Good idea," Johnny agreed. "Mares just love to birth at night, just to inconvenience us."

Scott laughed. "I think there's more to it than being annoying, Johnny, but it is a good bet that we'll be spending the night out here with more than one broodmare." Turning serious, he added, "We better draw up a plan. Murdoch is going to want to know exactly what we have in mind before he agrees to the expense of all the lumber for the barns and fencing."

"You know, we could just out vote him," Johnny grinned.

"Johnny! You're incorrigible." After slapping his brother playfully on the back, Scott headed for his horse. "Let's go back to the house and get a proposal written up. That way Murdoch won't have a reason to be out voted."

*** *** *** ***

"Wonder where they're headed?" Johnny asked, pointing towards a wagon and about six riders that were moving away from the ranch, on the road behind the hacienda.

"I don't know?" Scott shrugged.

Murdoch was standing by the barn when they road up. He didn't seem to notice their approach, and the serious look on his face as he watched the crew heading out made Johnny nervous.

"Something wrong, Murdoch?" Johnny asked as soon they got close.

Startled, Murdoch nearly dropped the bridle in his hands. "No, nothing's wrong. You boys get that creek cleared?"

"Yes, Sir." Scott's response was crisp and polished. "There should be no problems come spring."

The gray head nodded. "We'll need to keep an eye on it later on. The spring runoff from the mountain snows usually carries in a lot of underbrush. That creek can stop up on us before we know it, if we're not careful."

Johnny listened to the exchange, but his mind was on his father's claim the there was nothing wrong; his denial had fallen as flat as one of Maria's tortillas. "You gonna tell us the truth about what's not wrong? Where are those men going?"

"Johnny-" Murdoch began, only to stop. His shoulders drooped and he turned away. "I was hoping to get this done without you having to know about it."

"So much for that equal partner bit," Johnny snapped. He unsure of what was stoking his anger all of a sudden, but it was there, and getting more intense with each word his father spoke.

"I...I asked...those men volunteered," Murdoch said hesitantly, and would not meet Johnny's gaze. "I couldn't order anyone to do this and...and I didn't want any of us to be around."

"Around for what?" Johnny's voice was still low and steely.

Murdoch looked up, first at Scott, then he turned to Johnny. "They're headed for the cemetery. To remove those bodies."

Something from deep inside Johnny reached up and grabbed his heart, twisting it in a painful fist and driving the very breath from his lungs. The next thing he knew the wind was whipping at his face and the thunder of Barranca's hooves were pounding in his ears.

*** *** *** ***

"Johnny!" Scott and Murdoch both called out in unison when Barranca took off under the drive of spurs and rein.

"Go after him, Scott!"

Murdoch's frantic order was totally unnecessary - Scott already had Charlemagne at a full gallop, hot on the trail of his brother. Johnny's head start was not that great, and Charlemagne and Barranca were pretty evenly matched in the speed department, so Scott was able to keep Johnny in sight. Even if he had not been able to, there was no doubt where his brother was headed.

Through the dust from Barranca's flying hooves, he saw the blurring form turn onto the road leading up the hill, where the men and the wagon had already stopped. The blurry figures were not moving, as they too had realized that Johnny was on his way.

The golden palomino was pulled to a sliding stop just short of the wagon. Dirt and grass went sailing into the air, returning to the ground at almost the same moment Johnny's feet sent a puff of dirt into the air. Without saying a word, he grabbed a shove from one of the stunned men's hand and marched over to the recently filled graves. With a fury he began digging,  sending each shovel full of soil flying to the side, having no regard for neatness.

Scott tempered his approach, but not too much. Leaving his horse to himself or whoever decided to grab onto the reins, he approached his brother with concern and sadness. By the time he was close enough to speak to Johnny without having to worry about the others overhearing, Johnny had made a pretty good dent in the ground.

"Johnny," he said softly, hoping to break through the anger and pain that were driving his brother to such a desperate action. Instead, the pace of Johnny's digging increased.

"Johnny," Scott tried again, only this time the reaction was even worse. The digging stopped and Johnny raised the shovel, changed his grip and, using it like a sledgehammer, began pounding away at the headstone that bore their father's name.

Over and over the metal impacted with stone, the sound reverberating around them, making the whole scene seem even more surreal. Scott jumped each time bits of rock were sent shooting out from the erroneous marker. He waited, letting Johnny expend his anger and hopefully, slay a demon or two.

Finally, after a large chunk of stone fell away, leaving just the 'l' the 'a' and half of the 'n' of the Lancer name standing, Johnny stopped. His breaths were coming hard and furious, his whole body heaving as desperate lungs gulped in the crisp afternoon air. The shovel was stuck in the ground, and Johnny leaned heavily against it as he fought to catch his breath.

"Johnny," Scott tried again. When there was no adverse reaction, he took a step closer, standing in front of his brother.

The distraught man nodded his head a couple of times, as if to say he was all right, but when he stood up straight, the shovel came with him. His pace less furious, he began shoveling the dirt away, until two firm hands grasped the shovel handle, halting his progress.

With the handle held tight in his grip, Scott could feel, through it, the tremors that were coursing through Johnny's body. Johnny looked up at him, his expression a mixture of anger and hurt and even confusion. For a moment the two brothers stared into each other's eyes, neither saying anything as emotions were pulled in tight on both sides of the shovel.

"I have to do this," Johnny's strained voice broke the silence.

"No, Johnny, you don't have to do this," Scott corrected gently, and with more understanding that he cared to admit. "Do you need to do this?" he probed just as gently, just as knowingly.

Johnny inhaled sharply. His eyes were focused on the shovel between them, and the hands that held it firmly, two of them his, two of them his brothers. A few deep breaths later, Johnny's shoulders sagged. "I don't know," he whispered so softly that the sound was barely audible.

Scott's heart clenched. He knew exactly what his brother was feeling. The sense of loss, the sense of confusion, even the sense of betrayal; they all were tearing at him inside, telling him that things would never be the same again. And they wouldn't be. Scott knew that without a doubt, but he also knew that what could be had could be even better than what had been lost.

Easing his left hand down, he very carefully pried Johnny's fingers from around the wooden handle. Once the shovel was free, he tossed it aside and reached out, pulling Johnny close to him, holding the trembling body as no one had wanted to hold him upon his return from hell. It was over and done, had been his grandfather's reaction. Image and propriety and maintaining a man's dignity had prevented Harlan Garrett from giving his grandson the one thing that Scott had really needed - unconditional support.

The sound of approaching footsteps caused Johnny to stiffen, and try to pull away. Scott held on tight. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the newcomer and said softly, "It's just Murdoch."

Johnny nodded. This time when he pulled away Scott let him. He study Johnny closely, noting that he looked better, more in control, just extremely uncertain. Johnny's eyes slid closed when Murdoch slipped his arm around his shoulders.

*** *** *** ***

Sitting on the back of the wagon, staring down at the ground, Johnny tried to think of something to say. In his mind, everything was a blur - the wild ride, the crazed digging, the need to destroy every reminder of what he had lost.

Next to his dangling foot, he watched Murdoch's foot, dangling just to the right. He didn't remember getting to the wagon, but his father's gentle assurances still rang clearly in his ears. Squatting on the ground, a little to the left, was his brother. Johnny watched those deftly strong fingers pull up a blade of dried grass and he smiled just a little. This was real.

Taking a deep breath, he raised his head. "I'm sorry," he whispered, unable to meet either father or brother's eyes.

"You have nothing to be sorry about," Murdoch's deep voice reassured him. "I'm the one who should be sorry. I just wanted to-"

When Murdoch stopped speaking so abruptly, Johnny looked over at him. There was so much pain, so much regret in those blue eyes, that it made Johnny even more sorry that he had been the one to put it there.

"I wanted to spare you this," Murdoch confessed before giving Johnny a searching look. "Is this something you need to do, Son?"

Johnny's gaze shifted, looking beyond his father to the small grouping of tombstones not too far away. The shovel was still laying on the ground, freshly dug dirt, haphazardly thrown about, showing up all too clearly against the background of leaves and dead grass. The large piece of the broken headstone was near the wooden handle, casting an eerie shadow that made the scene seem even more macabre.

When Scott had asked him the same question a few minutes ago, Johnny had said he didn't know. At that moment he honestly had not known what he needed; he still didn't, but he did know that this wasn't it. Turning away, he looked over at Scott, who was still squatting on the ground, his fingers twisting at the blade of dead grass. Scott gave an almost imperceptible nod, and Johnny knew that if it was his need to complete this morbid act, his brother would be right there beside him all the way.

Something clicked inside, and Johnny shook his head. "No, I don't." Then he sighed and looked over at the graves. "I don't like asking anyone else to do it either," he said honestly.

"You have some very good friends, John," Murdoch's deep voice was heavy with emotion. "So many, in fact, that they had to draw straws to keep it from coming to blows. The losers are out doing ranch work."

Johnny didn't know what to say. Digging up dead bodies would give most men the willies. To know that the hands had actually argued over who would get to do such a gruesome chore left him feeling a bit numb.

He was still staring down at his boot when Scott tossed the now-crumpled piece of grass in his direction. It hit him on the toe, before tumbling to the ground.

"You ready to go home, Brother?" Scott asked.

With one last look at the broken headstone, Johnny nodded. "Yeah, I am."

*** *** *** ***

Later that night, Johnny stood by his window, staring out into the darkness. He tried to push away the thoughts of what he had done earlier that day, but they would not be driven away. He still felt the anger, swirling just below the surface, waiting for the next opportunity to rear up and make itself known. What he couldn't understand was what was causing it. Why couldn't he just forget what had happened and go on?

Nothing had been said at dinner, again, and that was only adding to his anxieties. He couldn't blame his family, though. They had no clue what to say or do around him anymore, not when it was as liable to set him off on a rampage as it was to make him laugh. They were all trying their best to help, only how could they when he didn't even know what he needed from them.

In the moonlight, he saw Lucille trotting back towards the barn from the direction of the kitchen door. Her head was hung low and Johnny could only imagine that she was still looking for the scraps that had been so plentiful a few weeks back. "Sorry, Lucy," he said with a sigh.

A darker shadow approached the dog, bent over, then headed for the bunkhouse. Frank. He would never admit it, but he had a real fondness for Teresa's dog and Johnny would put money on it that the pat on the head had been accompanied by a bone or scrap of meat that Frank had squirreled away from his dinner.

After dinner, when he was out checking on the stallion, Johnny had spoken to Frank. He wanted to apologize for his actions, and to thank him, knowing it would get around to the rest of the men. Frank had waved off Johnny's apology, saying he was proud to be part of the 'cemetery cleaning' detail. He also assured Johnny that only the scum that had robbed his family would
be removed when they resumed the task in the morning. Pedro and his family were to be left alone. Murdoch had made that point very clear, even though most of them already figured that was a given.

Turning away from the window, Johnny slipped out of his already unbuttoned shirt and hung it on the back of the chair. Fingers worked in the dark to undo his pants, which he shed and laid over his shirt. Padding across the room in his bare feet, he climbed into bed.

Tired and feeling drained, he wished he could sleep, but every time he closed his eyes he saw broken headstones, collapsed bridges, and a pair of blue-green eyes. He lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling until well into the early hours of the morning, dreading the coming day and the eruption he knew could come if his tired mind lost control the anger still churning deep inside his chest.

Thursday, December 29, 1870:

Johnny walked out of the barn, whistling the same light tune he had been all morning while he did his daily chores. He paused just outside the door, startled to see that they had visitors. The buggy he knew to be the one from the livery stable in Morro Coyo, but he did not recognize the two men who were just climbing down from the seat.

"Can I help you?" he asked as he approached the strangers.

"I'm looking for Mr. Lancer," the older man, with sandy hair and a sturdy frame that was nearly as large as Murdoch's, explained.

"I'm Mr. Lancer," Johnny began, then he caught himself, "One of 'em, anyway."

The visitor's eyes grew wide, then a brilliant smile spread across his face. "You must be Johnny. I'm Travis MacPherson, and this is my son, Murray. Your family stayed with me while they were stranded in Denver."

The second man took a step forward and held out his hand. Johnny shook Murray's hand, and then shook hands with the man who said his name was Travis.


Teresa's welcoming cry could be heard all the way from the front door. Johnny turned just in time to see Teresa run by him and greet the strange young man with a very friendly hug.

The older man chuckled. "I have business in Sacramento next week and decided to swing by for a couple of day; Murray came along to see Teresa. They do make a very handsome couple, don't they?"

"Yeah," Johnny said absentmindedly as he watched the greeting between his sister and this stranger get a bit too friendly for his tastes.

"We all had such a fabulous time in Denver; wining and dining and enjoying the holiday festivities. It was unfortunate that you missed making the trip. Your father and brother had themselves quite a night out on the town that lasted well into the morning hours. I've missed having them around, and, well, all I've heard from Murray is how much he misses Teresa. When this business trip came up, he jumped at the chance to accompanying me just so he could see her again." Travis' brown eyes danced with mischievous merriment. "I do believe we are well on the way to becoming in-laws."

Johnny's heart skipped a beat. Strong emotions, none of them good, sent his mind racing in all sorts of wild directions. "I'll get Murdoch," he stated with an icy tone as he turned and walked away.

Just as he was approaching house, Murdoch walked out onto the porch. "You got company," Johnny snapped. Ripping the reins free of the hitching rail, he swung into the saddle and spurred Charlemagne out at a full gallop.

*** *** *** ***

Scott walked out of the front door and waved at Johnny as he rode by. His expression turned confused when he realized it was his horse his brother was riding. Scott turned to his father who stood staring after Johnny. "Where's Johnny going, and why is he riding Charlemagne instead of Barranca?"

"I don't know," Murdoch was as puzzled as his son. "He just stormed by, said something about me having company, and then took off."


Both men turned and were surprised to see who had come to call. "Travis!" Murdoch exclaimed, shaking his friends hand. "Murray, this is an unexpected surprise."

"I have business in the area next week," Travis explained. "Murray came along for the ride, and," he chuckled heartily, "to encourage me to make this little detour." He winked at Teresa, who blushed and leaned closer into Murray's embrace.

"Travis," Scott interrupted. "Did you happen to meet my brother, Johnny?"

"Yes." Travis' jovial demeanor turned more subdued. "I'm afraid I may have said something that upset him. He seemed fine until I mentioned what a lovely time we all had in Denver."

"And that bit about becoming in-laws," Murray added a bit anxiously.

"Excuse me," Scott said to their guests. To Murdoch he was a bit more abrupt. "I'm taking Barranca to go after him."

"Good idea." Murdoch watched Scott disappear into the barn before turning back to his guests. "Come inside, where you'll be more comfortable."

They entered the hacienda and sit down in the great room. "I should apologize for Johnny's abrupt departure. He's...well, he's been going through a very difficult time.

"It's okay, Murdoch." Travis waved it off. "After all the time you and Scott spent telling me about him, I feel like I know him. I shouldn't have acted so familiar, not with him not even knowing who we were."

"It's not that, Travis," Teresa explained sadly, tears welling in her eyes.

"What's wrong, Sweetheart?" Murray asked Teresa.

The tears spilled down her checks and she quickly brushed them away. "While we were stranded in Denver, Johnny thought we were all dead."

"What?!" Both MacPherson's gasped.

"Johnny helped rescue the survivors and remove the bodies from that the train trestle that collapsed and stranded us," Murdoch expounded, his voice heavy with emotion. "Scott's wallet and my belt buckle, the ones that were stolen from the hotel, were found in the wreckage. And the telegram that the office in Denver swore to me had not gone through, actually did, but only
the part that said we were coming home early. Johnny had no way of knowing about the robbery, and every reason to believe that we were on that train and had been killed in the crash."

"Oh, Dear Lord, Murdoch. That must have been just terrible for the poor boy. I'm so sorry," Travis apologized. "I can only imagine how my comments must have sounded."

"You meant no harm, Travis. There's no way you could have known. Johnny will understand once Scott catches up to him and explains," Murdoch assured him.

"So, how long can you and Murray stay?" Teresa asked.

"Only a couple of days," Travis informed them. "I have a meeting on Monday in Sacramento."

"Well, you must be tired and hungry." Murdoch turned to his ward. "Teresa, will you make sure the guest rooms are made ready, and have Maria fix something for them to eat?"

"Of course." She and Murray shared a loving smile, then the young woman practically bounced out of the room.

"Murdoch, I am very sorry about what happened to Johnny. It must have been a nightmare," Murray said nervously. "But, the way he was looking at me, I can't help but think that he doesn't exactly approve of my relationship with Teresa."

"Scott and Johnny are both think of Teresa as a sister," Murdoch stated, just in case Murray had any fears that Johnny had any intentions of his own towards Teresa. "They are both very protective of her, and this was all a surprise to Johnny. Considering what he's been through, we've all tried to keep the details of our stay in Denver as low-key as possible."

"I can understand that," Murray offered sadly, but he was obviously very relieved.  

"I can't wait to see the rest of the ranch," Travis said smiling. "From what we saw just driving in, it is very impressive."

"I'll take you both for a tour," Murdoch promised. "Either later today or tomorrow." He winked at Travis. "That is unless Murray would prefer another escort."

Murray blushed, but boldly took the bait. "I believe I would, Sir."

*** *** *** ***

Johnny was seething. His common sense was doing battle with bitter anger, and common sense was losing, hands down. For the most part, anyway. He did manage to hang on to enough of that to know that he was being unfair to the poor animal beneath him. He reined in Charlemagne, slowing their pace to a steady walk. The chestnut's neck was white with lather, and his sides were heaving as he fought for air after the wild ride.

For the next half hour, Johnny concentrated solely on Charlemagne, feeling genuine concern and remorse for his ill treatment of the animal, while also using that as an excuse not to think about what the real issue. They walked for a short distance, then he led his brother's horse to a nearby stream and gave him a quick drink. Not too much, but just enough to help cool him off. The girth was loosened and Johnny walked beside the tired animal, headed for where, he did not know.

It was nearing sunset when he heard the approach of another horse coming up from behind. He did not turn around to see who it was. He didn't have to. He just kept walking, dreading the moment when Scott caught up with them. He still hadn't settled anything in his own mind and had no idea what to say, or what not to say.

"Johnny, wait up," the commanding voice called out, but Johnny kept walking.

A few seconds later, Barranca's golden body appeared in front of him. "Are you all right?" Scott demanded to know.

"Yeah, I'm just dandy," Johnny snapped sarcastically. "Never been better."

Johnny ignored his brother's intense scrutiny. He was not ready for this conversation. Unfortunately, Scott saw things differently. A firm hand clamped down on his shoulder and Johnny spun around, fists in the air.

"Do you need to hit me, Johnny?" Scott asked calmly. "Would that make you feel better?"

"No!" The answer came out as a reflex, but the strength of his denial helped put a damper on some of his anger. "No, Scott, I don't want to hit you," he admitted.

Scott reached out, this time his hand was meant to comfort, not confront. "What do you need, Johnny?"

What did he need? If only he knew, then maybe he could answer Scott's question. He thought he had figured it out yesterday, up at the cemetery, but now he felt more unsure than ever. He could only guess what he needed, and at the moment the only answer he could come up with had his heart pounding mercilessly inside his chest.

Maybe, just maybe, it would help. It sure couldn't make anything worse, and it wasn't like he could ignore it forever. "Tell me about Denver."

Scott hesitated. "Are you sure?"

He couldn't lie to Scott, not now, nor did he want to. "No, I ain't, but I gotta know or else I ain't never gonna be able to let it go."

They turned around and began walking back towards the house, Johnny still leading Charlemagne and Scott pausing long enough to loosen the girth on Barranca's saddle. He fell into line beside Johnny and began recounting the trip to Denver that had turned out to be more than any of them bargained for.

*** *** *** ***

"I spent the last night with Amanda, on a sleigh ride. The next day we boarded the train and headed home. By pure chance, we met up with Jelly in Oregon, and...and well, you know the rest."

By the time Scott had finished the story, the brothers had remounted their horses - well, each other's horses - and were just passing under the Lancer arch. There were several times when Johnny had seriously reconsidered whether or not he wanted to punch Scott, but each time that urge appeared, he felt an extremely sharp pang of guilt that kept him from doing just that. They hadn't known, he kept telling himself, they hadn't known.


"I'm okay," Johnny lied. Scott would see right through his words, so they didn't seem like a real lie. The truth, however, had to be told. "It hurts," he said without taking his eyes off the shadowy house before them. "Especially the part about you and Murdoch."

A deep chill shook Johnny's body, but it had nothing to do with the dropping temperatures. As much as he hated to admit it, he was jealous. Jealous of the time Scott and Murdoch had shared, the fences they had mended, and the relationship they had built. Johnny wanted all of that so badly he could taste it.

"Murdoch loves you, Johnny."

"I know."

"Do you? Really?"

Did he? Really? "Yeah," Johnny answered honestly. There were different levels of love, though, and he wondered if what he had with Murdoch would ever reach anything as close to what Scott had managed to find with their father. Chastising himself, he pushed that thought away. Scott hadn't found anything. He had worked for it, he deserved it.

As they passed the courtyard, laughter could be heard coming from inside the house. Johnny easily recognized Teresa's higher pitch among the deeper ones of the men. Despite his own problems, he couldn't help but smile. He may not have liked it at the time, but knowing what he knew now he had to admit that Teresa had never looked happier than when she was in Murray's arms.

"I'd be willing to bet that Maria has the boiler going full steam," Scott said casually. "Why don't you go take a nice hot bath? I'll take care of the horses, and then bring you some clean clothes."

The thought did sound appealing. Since the sun when down it had gotten rather cold, and the lighter coat Johnny had been wearing when he took off earlier in the day was not nearly heavy enough for the nighttime chill. Another round of laughter could be heard coming from inside the house. Mostly, though it gave him an excuse not to join in the revelry.

As soon as they dismounted, Scott was reaching from Charlemagne's reins. "Go on, Johnny. Have a soak, relax, take care of you."

Scott's gently urging made up Johnny's mind. "Thanks, Brother." He owed Scott so much more that mere words, but he didn't have it in him to try for anything else at the moment. He felt like he did back before his family had miraculously risen from the dead - like the whole world was pressing down on his shoulders, and it was only a matter of time before it squashed the life out of him.

*** *** *** ***

Scott led both horses into the barn. He removed their bridles and saddles, made sure both horses had a generous helping of oats, and a bucket of fresh water. Then he brushed down each horse.

While he worked, his thoughts kept returning to Johnny. He couldn't help but worry. He had been very honest with Johnny about the activities in Denver. Johnny had asked and Scott would not lie to him. A lot of what he had said had not set to well, of that he was certain. He only hoped that some part of it had been what Johnny needed.

He could hope, anyway. From the moment Sam and Cipriano had told them what Johnny had been going through, Scott had felt an almost overwhelming guilt. While they were making the most of being trapped in Colorado, his brother had been home suffering the worst sort of anguish possible back here at home. Scott kicked a bucket in anger, then glanced around to make sure he was alone. He felt both silly and foolish, and still very guilty.

He had known something was wrong; had felt it. He should have found a way to get home, or at the very least, get a message to his brother. Realistically, he knew both options had been impossible, but that did not change how he felt. He should have done something, anything.

With a heavy heart, Scott headed towards the house. He popped into the great room long enough to let his father and their guests know that he and Johnny were both back and that Johnny was, for the most part, okay. Then he excused himself and headed upstairs to get the clean clothes he had promised Johnny.

"Johnny," Scott called out as he entered the bathhouse so as not to startle Johnny. "I'm putting your clothes on the chair over here."

"Thanks, "Johnny replied quietly. A veil of steam rose out of the water. "I'll just soak here for a while, then head up to bed."

"Why don't you use the back stairs," Scott suggested. "That way you won't have to worry about running into anyone and getting pulled into socializing when you don't feel up to it."

"Good thinking."

Leaving his brother to what was hopefully a relaxing bath, Scott returned to the great room, positioning himself at the end of the sofa he could keep an ear out for his younger brother. Sometime later, he and Murray exchanged pained looks, and it was all he could do not to laugh at their mutual boredom. Murdoch was in his glory, and the topic was the price of beef at the market.

The talk continued, never varying for long from the subject of cattle, and Scott began to seriously wonder if that was all his father knew. Seriously, he knew better, but still, this was a bit much. Looking at the clock on the mantle, he was surprised to see how much time had passed since he had taken Johnny his clothes. His surprise turned to concern when he realized that he had not heard Johnny go up the back stairs to his room.

"Excuse me," Scott interrupted his father. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

Scott couldn't imagine what could be taking Johnny so long. As soon as he reached the bathhouse, his concerns faded. Inside, he found his brother sound asleep in the tub.

*** *** *** ***

Johnny jerked awake, instantly alert, but totally unsure of where he was.

"Easy, Brother."

The soothing voice was coming from his right and Johnny turned to see his brother grinning at him from across the room. Scott picked up a towel from the nearby shelf and said, "You fell asleep in the tub. It's a good thing I was listening for you to head upstairs, or you'd probably still be sitting here in the morning, wrinkled up like a big raisin."  

"I'd'a woke up when the water got too cold," Johnny groused.

After handing over the towel, Scott dipped his fingers into the water. "When the water got cold?" he teased. "Feels pretty cold to me already."

Johnny could hardly argue with that assessment, but that didn't mean he had to openly agree with it, either. "You mind?" he said, giving Scott a pointed look.

His brother laughed, but graciously turned away and found something on the counter to occupy his attention while Johnny dried himself off.

"Johnny, Teresa and Murray are very serious," Scott said while he waited for Johnny to get dressed.

"I noticed," Johnny grumbled as he remembered the over-familiar greeting from earlier. Scott had told him about the couple spending time together in Denver, but he hadn't connected the dots until just now. "Exactly how serious are they?"

"Murray bought her an engagement ring."

"Now wait just a damn minute!"

Scott turned around. "Settle down, Johnny. He's not taking liberties with her."

Johnny felt like he had been sucker punched. "Not taking liberties? You said yourself that he didn't even get to Denver until right before you left. They ain't known each other for a week! Next thing you know she'll be on a train headed for New York City!"

"It has been only a short time, but so far the ring has just been bought. He hasn't given it to her yet," Scott offered in appeasement. "He's here now because of some unexpected business Travis has in Sacramento, but both of them are planning on coming for a longer visit later in the summer. Murray wants to find a job, settle down in the area, and court Teresa properly."

After stuffing his shirttail into the waistband of his pants, Johnny stared at Scott. "You're okay with all this?"

"Yes," Scott stated firmly. "And you will be too, once you get to know Murray."

"Guess I ought to be meeting my future in-laws proper like," Johnny sighed. "You ready to head back inside?"

"Sure," Scott said hesitantly.

The two men walked in silence from the bathhouse to the kitchen door. Upon entering, they were immediately assaulted by the cheery voices coming from the great room, and the bravado that Johnny had been able to muster while alone with Scott suddenly abandoned him.  

"You don't have to do this tonight," Scott offered. He placed a hand on Johnny's shoulder and gave a reassuring squeeze.

Johnny considered his options, but mostly he considered the possibilities. One of those men was more than likely going to become Teresa's husband, the other would be her father-in-law. The last thing he wanted was to embarrass her, maybe even cost her a shot at being happy, and right now he couldn't guarantee that he would not do either of those things. He hated being this out of control of his own feelings, but he was smart enough to know that he was. "Maybe I'll just go on up to my room," he said softly.

"Want some company?" 

Scott's offer was expected, and Johnny shook his head. "No. I'm tired. I'll just go to bed."

"Good night, Johnny"

"'nite, Scott, and gracias. For everything."   

Friday, December 30, 1870:

"I'll get it." Scott had just entered the great room that morning, when there was a knock at the door. He opened it to find a well-dressed man, hat in hand, pacing nervously on the porch. "Good morning," he greeted the unexpected guest. "Can I help you?"

The dark-haired man approached and extended his hand. "Excuse me, I'm Jeff Demont. I'm looking for John Lancer."

Scott accepted the proffered hand. "I'm Scott Lancer. Johnny is my brother."

The other man's face went pale, his green eyes staring at Scott in shock. "I'm sorry. I...I heard..." the man's voice trailed off.

Scott sighed. He had hoped the visit from the neighbors would have put an end to such awkward moments. "It's okay, Mr. Demont. The reports of my death were a bit premature, I am happy to say."

The man regained a bit of his composure and nodded. "I'm happy to hear that, but not nearly as much as Johnny is, I'm sure."

Not wanting to get into that area, Scott stepped back. "Come in, Mr. Demont. Johnny will be down in a minute. It's a bit early for visitors around here. Have you had breakfast?" he asked as he played the role of the proper host.

"No, I haven't. I only arrived in Green River a few hours ago."

By this time Murdoch had made his way to the front door. "Murdoch, this is Mr. Demont. He's here to see Johnny."

Murdoch frowned, but then his expression reflected a hesitant recognition. "Demont? The engineer?"

"Yes." Jeff held out his hand and the two men shook. "And you must be Murdoch Lancer, Johnny's father."

"Maria!" Johnny's voice could be heard even before he stumbled down the stairs. "I need some clean socks, por favor."

A barrage of Mexican admonishments could be heard coming from the direction of the kitchen. At any other time such an informal display would have irked Murdoch, especially with guests in the house, and Scott was glad to see the glimmer of amusement in his father's eyes. Johnny sounded normal and that was enough to make any of them thrilled.

"Scott, we should...." Johnny rounded the corner and stopped, his bare feet making a squeaking noise against the tile floor. "Jeff," he greeted the man rather cautiously. "Ain't nothing wrong with the bridge plans, is there?"

"No. I heard from the forge just yesterday. The iron works are coming along just fine. We might even be able to start ahead of schedule, providing the weather holds." Green eyes glanced from Scott to Murdoch, before turning back to Johnny. "I need to talk to you about another matter. And I'm very happy that your family is..."

Johnny smiled nervously. "Yeah, me, too." Quickly composing himself, Johnny asked, "What do you need to talk to me about?"

"We'll leave you two alone," Murdoch interjected at Jeff's obvious hesitation.

"Ain't no need," Johnny said quietly, his eyes locked on Jeff. "I ain't got no secrets from them. Anything you need to say, they'll be hearing, too. Might as well get it first hand."

Jeff nodded and the group moved to the great room. Before anyone could say anything, Maria came in, her skirt rustling as she hurried moved to where Johnny was sitting on the arm of the chair by the fireplace, socks in one hand and his boots in the other.
"Running around desnudo," she scolded, handing him both items and shaking her head. "And in front of a guest."

Scott and Murdoch snickered while Johnny rolled his eyes as she clucked her disapproval all the way out of the room. "I ain't naked," he called after her. Even Jeff ended up trying to contain a laugh as Johnny slipped on his socks and boots.

Once he was decent, Johnny turned to Jeff. "Okay, shoot."

The grin disappeared from the engineer's face, only to be replaced with a grim frown. "Mac and I need your help, Johnny."

At Scott's puzzled look, Johnny explained. "Mac is the guy that done the blasting. He's Jeff's partner."

"One of them," Jeff corrected. "Anyway, Mac is waiting back in Green River, with our attorney."

"Attorney?" This time it was Murdoch who interrupted. "What exactly does your attorney want with my son?" he demanded.

"Back off, Murdoch," Johnny warned, and then turned back to Jeff. "Are you saying that Marshal Canton wouldn't help?"

Jeff shook his head. "No. The problem is that we haven't been able to locate him. Most of the telegraph lines are still down. We've sent word by messenger on the railroad, but that's taking time. Not only because of the round about way you have to use to get over the mountains now, but also because the railroad is playing dirty. The first man we sent got kicked off the train in some rinky-dink rail stop. It took him two days to get word to us in San Francisco. This time we were a little more careful, but we're also running out of time."

"Why would they care?" Johnny asked. "Unless they're planning on killing the marshal, they'll have to face him eventually."

"No they won't. The railroad has called an emergency meeting in Sacramento on Monday. From what our attorney had found out, only the real bigwigs are going to be there. If they manage to get the suit filed, even if we can clear our name later, most of the damage will be done. Building a reputation is hard enough in this business; trying to overcome even the perception of being involved in any kind of tragic accident would be next to impossible. Our attorney wants to be at that meeting, with your deposition in hand."

Johnny had no objection to helping; he just didn't see what he could do. "How's anything I got to say gonna stop them?"

"They're pushing hard, Johnny. They want this settled in a hurry. They want to get cleared of all the blame, and leave us to clean up the mess. Even if the truth comes out later, it will sound like an excuse, or even a fabrication." Leaning forward, Jeff rested his elbows on his knees in despair. "They're going to bury us Johnny. Right now your word is all we've got to make them think twice before them make a move."

"Would one of you care to tell us what's going on?" Scott asked.

Johnny nodded at his brother. "Jeff and Mac did a lot of the work on that trestle that collapsed. The railroad is trying to make it out that they put it together wrong, and that's why it didn't hold up under all that ice. The truth is that it was sabotaged. Some of the support timbers were cut clean through, and there was some dynamite found attached to one of them. The marshal figured that the robbers got caught by the storm and decided their lives was more important."

"More important that what?" Murdoch asked.

"Two hundred gold bars, and almost a half a million in currency." All eyes turned towards the archway as Travis entered the room. "I apologize for eavesdropping, but as one of the railroad 'bigwigs', I found your conversation very interesting."

Jeff stared at Johnny, his expression conveying his betrayal. Johnny understood, and was not at all happy that his father's guest had taken such liberties. "This was a private conversation," Johnny snarled. "Not only that, I'm not sure I want a no-account lying snake staying in this house."

"Johnny!" Murdoch shouted.

"No, Murdoch," Travis interceded, "Johnny has every right to be upset. However, he has no need to be." Moving over to Jeff, Travis held out his hand. "Travis MacPherson."

"Jeff Demont," the engineer replied, without accepting the other man's hand.

Travis smiled, seemingly unfazed by Jeff's display of blatant hostility. Turning to Johnny, he asked, "You said the supports were cut."

"Yes," Johnny snapped.

"You saw them?"

"I moved 'em," Johnny said coldly. "I pulled out the women and children that were crushed under 'em."

It was barely noticeable, but Travis flinched at those words. "And the dynamite."

"It was there."

"You saw it?" Travis pressed.

Johnny hated that he had not, but he couldn't lie. "No, but the marshal told me about it. It was there."

Travis nodded. "This marshal, you have no doubt that his word can be trusted?"

Johnny looked over at his father. Marshal Canton, the former Pinkerton detective had known his father, had known him for a long time. He had felt guilty about letting Murdoch down, for letting Johnny down, even though it was just a job. Even now, when it wasn't even his job no more, the man's guilt had been obvious. Someone who had that much heart couldn't be willing to lie about something he didn't even know about, nor would he be willing to be part of a plan to kill all those people for money.

"He wouldn't lie," Johnny said with total conviction. Turning back to Travis, he added, "The supports were cut and the dynamite was there. If anyone should be answering questions, it's the stupid fool who put all that gold and money on that train in the first place."

Businessman and former gunfighter locked eyes. A few seconds later, Travis nodded. "You're absolutely right, Johnny." Turning to Jeff, he made an unusual request. "Mr. Demont, if Johnny had no objections, I would like to be present for his deposition."

Jeff was stunned by the audacity of the request, but quickly recovered. "Even if Johnny doesn't mind, I'm sure my attorney will," he said coldly.

"Possibly, but as I will be receiving a copy of that deposition on Monday, there is no real reason I couldn't be there."

"Whose side are you on, MacPherson?" Johnny demanded bluntly.

Again the two men locked eyes, and again it was Travis who relented. "I'm on the side of truth, Johnny. You see, I'm one of the stupid fools who authorized that shipment. If my decision was at fault for that tragedy, then I want to know it. I also want gain as much information as I can to find out who it was that leaked that information, and how much they got for it."

"Jeff?" Johnny addressed the engineer.

"I don't know Johnny," Jeff said as he eyed Travis suspiciously. "Do you trust him?"

"No, but I only met him yesterday." Johnny turned to his father. "What about it, Murdoch?"

Murdoch's gaze was already fixed on his old friend. "Travis?"

"I don't have absolute power with the railroad, Murdoch," Travis admitted. "I am, however, already inclined to believe that the trestle did not collapse because of design flaws or faulty construction. If, after Johnny's deposition, that belief still holds, I will do everything in my power to ensure that innocent parties are not turned into scapegoats."

"Everything in your power?" Jeff laughed. "Would you care to be more specific?"

"Yes, I would be glad to," Travis agreed. "I will send my son, Murray, back to Denver to find this Marshal Canton. My son is well known on the railroad, and I can assure you that no one will be putting him off at some out of the way station. In the meantime, I will escort your attorney to that meeting and personally introduce the deposition into the official records. My backing for the deposition should be enough to put the brakes on any plans to push this case through the courts."

"And if it's not?"

Travis smiled, a cold calculating smile. "I have friends in Sacramento, Mr. Demont. Specifically in the newspaper business. Should the railroad insist on pursing this suit after they are presented with evidence to the contrary, I will be calling upon those friends. Your side of the story will get out first, and believe me, young man, that is were true power lies."

*** *** *** ***

Johnny glanced over at Travis. They had finished up in town and were heading back to the ranch. He was grateful that the older man had not asked him any questions after the deposition was over. After a bit of discussion, Jeff and Mac's attorney had relented and allowed the railroad representative to remain in the room while he questioned Johnny about what he had seen and
heard. Johnny felt drained, as if he had relived every moment of the tragedy all over again.

He knew it would be a long time before he stopped dreaming about the little girl and the others he had helped pull out of the wreckage. The fact that it had not been an accident or the results of the storm only made it worse in his mind. Those responsible for the derailment needed to be caught and punished. Johnny intended to do what he could to help out; he could do nothing less. He owed it to that little girl.

The man sitting next to him on the surrey seat was a friend of Murdoch's, so he had taken him at his word that he regretted his decisions, and that he intended to find the ones responsible for passing on the information and make them pay. He had seemed genuinely sincere, both at the ranch and during the meeting with the attorney, but Johnny swore to himself that if Travis was using his friendship with Murdoch to railroad him into doing something that would help land the blame on Jeff and his partner, then Murdoch better be ready to face a war between his son and his friend.

"Johnny, do you think we could stop for a few minutes?" Travis asked, breaking the silence he pointed to an area near the river.

It was a nice spot, with a few shade trees and a cool breeze always seem to be blowing through. Johnny and Scott stopped at this spot every now and then, just to talk or to enjoy a few minutes of peace.

"Sure," Johnny replied softly, pulling on the reins he brought the surrey to a halt. He hoped the investor did not want to talk about the train wreck, because Johnny had talked enough about that to last a lifetime. They got out of the surrey and Travis walked over to the river.

"Johnny, I want to apologize for the things I said to you that first day," Travis began, turning to face the younger man.

"It's okay," Johnny shrugged it off. "You didn't know anything about what had happened around here."

"Still," the older man persisted. "We were strangers, and I was more than a bit forward. I'm sorry for that, and for any additional distress I inadvertently caused."
"Da nada," Johnny spoke quietly. "It's forgotten."

"Murdoch was right. You are a very generous individual. There is something else I wanted to discuss with you." Travis reached inside his coat pocked and pulled out a folded envelope. He stared at it for a long moment. "I have something that belongs to you."

"Something of mine?" Johnny asked. He couldn't imagine what any of his family would have left with this man, or why they would have had anything of his with them to begin with.

"Yes." After another hesitation, the older man held out the envelope. "I gave this to Scott to return to you, but he said he hadn't come across the right moment. He returned it to me, and I hoped there would be a chance to give it to you personally. I'm not sure how much it meant to you, but it has meant the world to me."

Johnny opened the envelope, curious as to what Travis could possibly mean. He pulled out a folded piece of paper, and a medallion on a chain slipped out into his hand. He picked up the medallion and turned it over. Recognition came quickly, and more confusion followed. "I don't understand. How did you..." His words trailed off as he once again looked down at the religious medal.

He remembered the day his stepfather had given it to him. He had told Johnny to treasure it always, and Johnny had...for a while. Then there came a time when Johnny Madrid had no belief in such things. It had been kept only because of the link to his past, a past that wasn't nearly a bleak as his future.

"The woman you gave that medallion to was my wife," Travis explained sadly. "I've been looking for you ever since. When I heard that Johnny Madrid had been executed in Mexico, I grieved for you. When Scott mentioned that his brother used to go by that name, I was dumbfounded, then I was thrilled."

"I'm sorry about you wife," Johnny said softly. "I tried to help her. She..." He looked down, pushing the dirt with his boot. "I made her as comfortable as I could."

"I know," Travis replied quietly. "The driver told me how you sat with her..." His voice broke and he turned to the river, unable to finish. "I want to thank you for what you did, Johnny." He turned back to the young rancher, his eyes blinking rapidly. "You don't know how much it has meant to me, just knowing that she wasn't alone, and that there was someone with her who tried to ease her pain."

"I wish I could have done more," Johnny said honestly. He recalled the overturned stagecoach as if it had happened just yesterday. There had been nothing he could do. She was bleeding inside and there was no help around. He had made her as comfortable as possible, holding her hand through the night. During one of her more lucid moments, she had noticed the medallion.
Something about the way she talked made him believe that she could find some of the peace it had once given him. She had passed away with it still clutched in her hand.

"You did something most people would not think of doing," the investor spoke honestly. "You are a very noble young man, and someone I would be proud to call my friend."

"Evidently, you don't know much about Johnny Madrid," Johnny laughed harshly. The memories of who he had been were too close to the surface to ignore.

"I know all I need to know, and I stand by my assertions."

Suddenly, another thought struck Johnny. "Does Murdoch know about this?" he asked.

"No. I only told Scott, and that was only because he was reluctant to pass on my note when he saw it was addressed to 'Johnny Madrid'." The older man grinned. "It seems he's quite protective of you."

"Scott kind of takes that being the older brother thing real serious." Johnny returned with a grin of his own.

"Speaking of which," Travis checked his pocket watch. "If we don't get a move on, he will probably come looking for us."

"Don't doubt it," Johnny warned him as he sensed the other man was merely joshing him. "Scott can be a real mother hen."

The two men shared a laugh as they climbed back into the surrey and resumed the journey back to the ranch. Johnny was not sure whether he felt comfortable telling his father about his being there when Travis' wife had died or not. Finally, he decided he would leave it up to Murdoch. If his father asked about the medallion, he would explain; otherwise he would let it go.

*** *** *** ***

"How did things go today?" Scott asked as he sided up next to Johnny. Drinks in hand the two men stood out on the porch, enjoying the crisp night air.

"I'm okay," Johnny smiled. He figured that Scott had been worrying about this, and would be checking up on him before too long. The only surprise was that his older brother had managed to restrain himself until now.

"I think..." Johnny looked down at the drink in his hand. The moonlight reflected off the clear surface. Standing here, with Scott by his side, Johnny felt normal again. "It was tough," he said honestly, "but I think it...I don't know...I don't feel so angry anymore."

Next to him the blond head bobbed slightly. "You're making a difference."

Johnny had considered that possibility once he and Mr. MacPherson had returned to the ranch. Scott had given him some space, and now he knew why. "You knew it that's what I needed, didn't you?"  

"No," Scott shook his head. "I didn't know, Johnny. Not for certain."

"But you gave me the chance to find out. That's more than the old man would have done. He was dead set against the idea."

"He wanted to protect you, Johnny."

"I know." And Johnny did. It had felt good to be on the receiving end of the Old Man's protective nature. It had felt even better when he had backed off, allowing Johnny's decision to stand. "That was the first time he'd treated me normal-like since you all got back. I may not know too much right now, but I know I needed that."

"I'm sorry. I tried not to coddle you too much," Scott sighed.

Johnny couldn't help it, but he laughed, and threw his arm around Scott's shoulders. "You're apologizing? For what? Knowing when I needed someone to lean on, or for givin' me a little nudge when I needed it? Or maybe for bein' honest with me when I knew no one else would."

Questioning eyes turned towards him. "What do you mean?"

With a shake of his head, Johnny let his arm fall away. He leaned against the hitching rail and took a sip of his drink. "You think Murdoch or Teresa would have told me what it was really like in Denver?"

"I wasn't sure that was such a good idea at the time," Scott confessed.

"Probably wasn't, at the time." Johnny looked up at the moon and smiled. "I came real close to hitting you a couple of times."

Scott took a sip of his brandy. "Why didn't you?"

"I couldn't. I wanted to something fierce, but at the same time, I didn't." Johnny sighed. "I know that don't make no sense, but it's the way it was. Then, this morning, when Jeff showed up and it looked like Murdoch's old buddy mighta been to blame...I don't know, something happened."

"You had something to fight," Scott said more as a statement than a question.

"Maybe." Johnny honestly did not know. "I just know that after I told that attorney what it was like, what I'd seen, what the marshal told me, I felt like hell, but I felt better, too." He snorted. "Kind of stupid, huh?"

"No, not in the least."

Johnny turned around, watching Scott as his brother stared up at the moon, just like he had been doing only a few minutes before. He wanted to ask Scott how he had known, how he had been so in tune with when Johnny could handle a little push, and when he could handle nothing more than a shoulder to lean on.

"I remember," Scott said softly. "It was the same way for me when I came home from the war. The intense need for life to be normal again, but not knowing how to make it so. For everyone else it was over. They just expected that it would be for me, too, but it wasn't and they couldn't understand."

The war. Johnny hadn't even thought that, about how hard it must have been for Scott to find anything normal in Boston after spending a year in the hellhole prison camp. "I'm sorry, Scott."

"I'm not." Scott's voice held nothing but total sincerity. "I survived, and that experience has helped me to help you." Cerulean eyes turned to meet Johnny's. "Now, maybe we can both find some true peace, Brother."   

Saturday, December 31, 1870:

Johnny was half dressed when the rooster crowed for the first time that morning. He lit the lamp, having never really needed much light to get dressed, and poured some water from the pitcher into the washstand basin. He shaved, poured the basin of water out the window, and then reached for his boots. He hesitated, but only for a moment, before slipping them on and heading for the room across the hall.

With a smile on his face, he opened the door to Scott's room and entered. Scott was standing by the washstand, dressed in his pants and the shirt from his longjohns, and a towel draped over his shoulder. "Mornin'," Johnny said as he plopped down on Scott's bed.

Scott turned. There was a frown on his lips, but the rest of his expression was as light-hearted as Johnny felt. Those gray-blue eyes narrowed, shooting a pointed look in the direction of Johnny's boots.

"I'm getting 'em off," Johnny grumbled, but there was only joy in his heart as he shifted his boots off the edge of the mattress. Scott's frown turned to a smile as he turned back to finish his shaving. This felt so right. They were back where they had been, well, mostly back. There would be no going all the way back and Johnny knew it. Change did not always have to be a bad thing, though.

He had left Johnny Madrid behind, as much as he could, and that change had been both traumatic and a blessing. Being part of a family was something he had wanted, but having schedules to keep and others to answer to had been a difficult adjustment for someone who had not had either for too very long. But he had managed, stumbling along the way, until he found that peaceful place where keeping those who loved him apprised of his plans was no longer an obligation, but a desire of his own.

Johnny laid his head back on the headboard and sighed his contentment. "Wanna go to town tonight? Play some poker, have a few beers, raise some respectable hell."

Scott snorted softly. "Respectable hell?"

"Yeah," Johnny chuckled. "That's what us respectable ranchers do on Saturday nights."

A towel come sailing across the room and landed on Johnny's face. With reflexes that were still faster than most, the towel hit Scott in the chest before he could even turn back around. Catching the towel before it fell to the floor, Scott shook his head. "Sorry, Brother, but our respectable hell raising is going to have to wait for another time. Teresa is planning a nice dinner for tonight."

"Oh?" Johnny felt some of his anxieties return.

"Yes, since both of our birthdays passed without a celebration, Teresa is throwing a combination birthday/New Year's Eve dinner."

"Oh." Dark thoughts of two nights spent alone in the dark, trying to drink away his pain had Johnny wishing that they could just forego the hoopla for one more year. The he thought of Scott. This was his first birthday away from Boston. From what Scott had told him about his life back in the bustling city, Johnny was pretty sure that Scott's birthday had always been a big to do.


Looking up, Johnny saw Scott staring at him from a across the room. His shirt was only half buttoned, and the concern in his expression tore at Johnny's heart. He had promised himself that things weren't going to be this way no more. He would buck up and make things right again. "Guess she and Maria are going to be cooking up a storm," he said with a forced smile. "We'll be lucky if we get through breakfast before we get kicked out of the kitchen."

For a moment Scott's expression did not change. Then he managed a sad grin. "We have guests, remember? Breakfast will be at the dining table, and if you're smart, you'll keep clear of the kitchen."

"Oh, yeah," Johnny sighed.

"Johnny..." Scott began, only to stop and inhale deeply.

Johnny knew exactly what his brother was thinking. "I ain't pushing it, Scott." At the raised eyebrow that met his comment, Johnny nodded. "Okay, so I am a little. Cain't do nothing else."

"I know," Scott responded sagely. "Just don't let that little become a lot before you realize it."

No, he could not force himself to feel the way he wanted, but it was coming back. He would get there eventually, and that made the transition time easier to accept.  

"Johnny, there is one thing you need to do today."

"What's that?"

"Talk to Murray." Scott chuckled lightly. "He's really worried that you don't approve of him courting Teresa."

"I don't know nothing about him," Johnny shrugged. "You say he's okay, so he's okay."

"I know that and you know that, but Murray doesn't know that. I would mean a lot to Teresa if you could just talk to him for a minute. Try to get to know him yourself."

Scott was not going to back off on this one, and Johnny knew it. He also knew that his brother was right. If things was as serious as Scott said they was, as they had looked yesterday, then Johnny figured he better start getting used to the idea.


Johnny caught the brush that was tossed in his direction. "What's this for?"

The patented big brother frown formed on Scott's face. "For brushing your hair. We have guests, remember?" Fully dressed, Scott reached for the door latch. "And get your boots off my bed."

*** *** *** ***

Johnny slipped away as soon as he could. Breakfast had been a harried event, a far cry from the informal gatherings at the kitchen table where the family spent most mornings. Not only did they have guests to entertain, but also as expected, Teresa and Maria were in a tizzy over the preparations for the evening meal.

From his place on the patio, he could see Murdoch and Travis huddled over the big desk. He had to admit that the two men seemed to go well together. His hand went to the medallion that now hung around his neck. That unbearably long night had been nothing but another part of his checkered past until yesterday.

Last night he had dreamed about the woman who had died early on a gloomy Texas morning. It was a good dream, though, as good as any dream about death could be. Instead of the pain, he remembered only the warmth in her eyes and the gentle feel of her hand in his. She had known she was going to die, and the thought had not frightened her. Her only worries were for her family, and the man she would leave behind.

"They're already at it again, I see."

Looking up, Johnny saw that Murray was standing a little ways off the porch, gazing through the French doors at the older men inside at the desk. "Guess I missed out on the fun last night," Johnny admitted sheepishly.

Murray laughed. "Fun? If you say so." The smile faded and Murray shifted nervously.

"Got a minute?" Johnny asked softly. "I'm thinking the two of us need to be having a talk. You know, clear the air."

"Yes, I suppose we should," Murray nodded and moved closer to the hitching rail on which Johnny was leaning. "I love Teresa."

Johnny smiled. He couldn't fault a man who was willing to grab the bull by the horns. "You barely know her," he said soberly.

"Our time together has been short," Murray acknowledged. "But I am in love with her. I didn't plan it and if you had asked me a month ago if I would ever feel this way about someone I just met I would have laughed in your face."

"Kinda snuck up on ya?" Johnny couldn't help teasing.

"Snuck? Try knocking me over the head," Murray laughed, then turned serious. "I've already bought her a ring."

Johnny nodded. "I know. Scott and that lady he was spending time with in Denver saw you picking it out."

"Oh." The secret was out and the man in love did not seem happy.

"Don't worry. As long as you don't give it to her until you've squared things with Murdoch, you'll be alright." A tense silence that filled the air around them. "You already gave it to her," Johnny growled.

Murray took a step back, then stood up tall. "Yes, but not officially. As you pointed out, our time together was short. I didn't want Teresa to leave Denver and then have doubts while we were apart. If having that ring in her possession, even if it isn't on her finger, can give her some assurances that I will come back to her, then so be it."

Johnny had to admit that he liked that the man Teresa had fallen for had some grit. He wasn't backing down, but he wasn't picking a fight, either. Teresa had done good. "I won't say nothing to Murdoch or Teresa."

"Thank you for your discretion when it comes to your father," Murray said softly. "But you don't have to worry about Teresa. I will be telling her that you know."

Johnny looked up sharply.

"Honesty and trust are as much a part of marriage as love. I won't lie to Teresa, ever." Murray's expression softened. "My parents had a wonderful marriage. They loved and respected each other very much. That's the kind of marriage I want to have with Teresa."

"I can understand that," Johnny agreed.

"Johnny, thank you for what you did for my mother," Murray said in a voice heavy with emotion. At Johnny's startled look, the sad voice continued. "I recognized the medallion when you came down for breakfast. Afterwards, I commented to my father on the coincidence of you having one like the one they found in my mother's hand. He told me it was the same medallion, and why he had returned it to you."

"She was a brave woman," Johnny said softly, not knowing what else to say to her son. Well, there was one thing. "As long as Teresa's happy, you'll get no fight from me."

Murray nodded. "Thank you, Johnny. For everything."

*** *** *** ***

Murdoch looked across the table at his family and guests after partaking in a wonderful birthday/New Years celebration. Maria and Teresa had gone all out for this dinner. The table had been set with the dishes Catherine had brought with her when they traveled from Boston some twenty odd years ago. She had fretted over them, as they had been in her family since her grandmother had come to America from the old country. As luck would have it, they had arrived in California without dish being broken.

The serving dishes and glasses were from his second marriage; one of the few things Maria had not taken with her when she left with Johnny. They had been a gift from her father on their wedding day; that she had left them behind had eventually told him just how little she valued any part of their marriage. He was saddened that there were no plates to go with them; in a fit of rage he had broken every one of them one night after coming home empty handed from the search for his missing wife and son. Maybe he would talk to Cipriano and see if there was a possibility of getting another set. He would like to have something to pass on to Johnny from his mother, like he had from Scott's.

The food had been wonderful. Scott had even ventured a try at some of Maria's special tamales; the ones she usually made only for Johnny. They had all laughed when Scott gratefully grabbed the glass of milk Johnny had handed him. Johnny had tried the bread pudding that Teresa had made especially for Scott, as he had mentioned more than once that it was one of the few things he missed from Boston.

At first it seemed so strange to see Scott sitting next to his brother, instead of in his customary seat opposite him at the table. With Murray there, Scott had given up his seat next to Teresa, but Murdoch read right through his excuse; he was quite sure his youngest son had, also. Scott was once again acting in the role of older brother. Johnny would not be overly comfortable, even with this small group of friends, and Scott wanted to make his support clear

It had worked, too. Every once in a while, Murdoch had caught Scott saying something low to Johnny, or vice versa, and both brothers would smile and continue their meal. Scott seemed able to tell when his brother was getting the itch to cut and run. He would say something, and Johnny would relax again.

As per Scott's request, there had been no presents exchanged at the table. Instead Murdoch had been requested to give them a present the next week. There was a survey report due at the end of the month, and Scott was scheduled to head to the furthest line shack in the western portion of the land to spend a couple days surveying. For his gift he requested that Johnny be allowed to go along, too. Scott informed his father he knew it was not the best time but that this was all he truly wanted for his birthday, to spend time with his brother.

The business man had known that he should deny the request; the father in him won out and he found himself nodding in agreement. To his surprise, Scott had said thank you, given him a quick hug, before taking off across the yard, calling Johnny's name. Murdoch could not have gotten a better gift for the holidays than to be on the receiving end of this unusual display of
emotion from his oldest son. He watched as Johnny came out of the barn and Scott explained to him their father's answer.

The younger sibling's face had broken out with a brilliant smile that the patriarch had not seen since they had gotten home from Denver. It was something he had not realized how much he missed until this very moment. The two of his sons going to do the surveying together was a good thing, and Murdoch made a mental note that, even though it might mean extra work for
himself and some of the hands, he would tell his sons before they left to take an extra couple days to relax.

This small dinner party had been the perfect way to celebrate. Looking across the table, Murdoch smiled as he watched Johnny unbutton the top button on his shirt. Teresa had made her brothers matching shirts with fancy needlework. Both shirts had a horse sewn on it; Scott's was blue, while Johnny's was green. She had given them to her brothers earlier in the day, after the older man had explained that there would not be any presents at the table.

Besides the time together, Murdoch had given them both another gift. Scott had mentioned that he had contracted to buy some mare's from the rancher he had purchased Johnny's stallion form. The patriarch had talked to Travis, and as the mare's were not paid for yet, his friend readily agreed to take the payment from Murdoch to Mike, and the perfect birthday present was obtained.

He had to admit that not only did he do it for his two sons; he selfishly saw the gift as a means of keeping them around. One day, he knew they would find wives and build their own lives with their own families. Hopefully it would be on Lancer land, maybe even in the hacienda, but Murdoch knew that it might not be so. Until then, though, he wanted to keep them with him as
long as possible.

Across the table, his two sons were once again whispering amongst themselves. Only this time it did not appear to be anything stressful or calming, as they were both looking at Val. They snickered at the lawman, whose shirt now had a stain down the front; or rather Scott's shirt did, as Johnny had talked his brother into loaning it the sheriff when his got dirty on the way to the ranch. Scott smile faded, and he groaned as the implications of the stain now spreading across Val's shirt hit home.

"I'd like to propose a toast," Murdoch said suddenly, picking up his glass. "To my family," He faltered, looking at Scott who smiled back and then Johnny, who looked at his father and then at the glass he held in his hand, and finally to Teresa, who was in every way the daughter he never had. "This is the happiest day of my life, one I never dared hope would come true, to have my family here at Lancer, together." He looked from Val, to Sam, and finally to Travis and Murray. " And to old friends and new ones, Happy New Year."

The small group of family and friends drank from their glasses, turning to each other and said 'Happy New Year'. The gray haired man watched as his son's eyes met each other, not a word passing between them they touched glasses and took yet another drink. Murdoch felt a warmth flow through him not quite like anything he had felt before. Johnny would be okay, it would take time but he would find his way back and if he stumbled, Scott would be there to help him find his way.

"You don't think Murdoch's going to suggest we make a toast do you?" Scott joked in a whisper to his younger brother.

"He wouldn't!" Johnny replied quickly, stopping as he saw the laughter in his brother's eyes. "Nah, he won't." He smiled slightly at Scott using his best Madrid voice. "But if he did, maybe I'd shoot 'im'"

"No, you wouldn't," Scott answered confidently. "You don't want to be responsible for half the book work."

Murdoch suggested to his guests that they head into the great room where they could continue to celebrate with a special bottle of Scotch he had saved for just such an occasion.

*** *** *** ***

Not long after the gathering had moved from the dining table to the great room for drinks, Johnny was standing by himself, behind the desk, staring out the huge picture window. He has almost left the room. The need to get away from the gaiety had driven him this far, but he had stopped just shy of actually leaving the room. This was something that he had to face - the fear of being happy again.

There were times when he wondered if it was worth it, if staying with his family was worth the potential of such an unbearable pain that losing them would cause. Sometimes the fear made him react before he could think, but after the deposition, and talking to Scott last night, things were better. He could still feel the anger that was fueled by that fear, but the fight was getting easier every day. Tonight he had promised himself that he would stick it out. He could do this. He wanted to do this.

After a few minutes, his decision made, he turned around and rejoined his family. In a few hours they would be heralding in a new year, and with it the hopes and dreams for a brighter tomorrow.

Scott moved over to stand by Johnny's side. "Welcome home, Brother," he whispered so that only Johnny could hear.

After swallowing the lump in his throat Johnny whispered back, "It's good to be back, Brother."




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